Three Amigos . . .

Late last Thursday I had the honor and pleasure to moderate a panel about Access to Justice at the Charleston School of Law as part of their Professionalism Series. Of course anytime that access to justice is recognized as important in the legal field, I’m always thrilled, but this offered me a chance to listen to others.

Many people at the Charleston School of Law worked hard to make our presentation a success, especially Abby Saunders, Graham Ervin, The Honorable Robert S. Carr and Sean, our media guru. And many thanks to the students who listened intently and came up afterwards to ask questions.

Fortunately I was familiar with those I was moderating, all of whom are SC Access to Justice Commissioners – Jennie L. Stephens, Executive Director of the Center for Heirs Property Preservation; The Honorable Deadra L. Jefferson, Resident Circuit Judge for the Ninth Judicial Circuit; and Stuart M. Andrews, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP.

allow-me-to-introduce

Ms. Stephens presented information about her work including a video clip from the Center’s informational video. If you are not already familiar with the Center, please check out their website. They have lots of valuable information and define the term “Heirs’ property.”

Heirs’ property is the name given to land that is owned by a group of family members who are the descendants of the original purchaser. The deed to the land is registered in the name of a deceased family member. Usually, the property has passed to each new generation through the State’s intestate laws. With each new generation, it is likely that family members may die without leaving wills stating who should inherit their share of the land.

Judge Jefferson offered perspective from the bench. Her words were inspirational and thought-provoking. I really appreciated the reference to Charles Hamilton Houston‘s quote that a lawyer’s either a social engineer or he’s a parasite on society.” Additionally, Judge Jefferson reminded us that attorneys are often the first face of justice and that laws are not enacted for the benefit of a few.

Mr. Andrews completed the presentation by reminding the students and the speakers why it is necessary to have an access to justice initiative. He noted that according to an ABA study, over 80% of the civil legal needs of low-income individuals are not met. He also presented a snapshot of Pro Bono by South Carolina Attorneys in 2006 (below).

sc-bar-pro-bono-program-2006

Every day I am grateful to work with so many dedicated and driven individuals; individuals such as the three commissioners outlined here. And I wanted to take a moment to thank them as well as the unspoken heroes at courts, and legal and social non-profits around the state.

Thank you for working to improve the system.

You are appreciated.

And your work is important.

-RFW

Foreclosure and Mental Health: Not a Good Match

As the South Carolina Access to Justice Commission prepares for the Final Hearing in November, the nation is facing one of the largest financial catastrophes in recent history. The Commission was established specifically to find innovative ways to address barriers to legal representation for people with low income and also those with modest means.

Analysts predict that this situation is not going to change anytime soon. And as an entity who has already been reviewing the available resources within the state, that’s more than a little scary. There are many dedicated attorneys and human service organizations that are working diligently to meet the need. And the need is only going to grow.

Just last week at the Heroes in the Fight Dinner, led by Mental Health America of South Carolina, I spoke with Ed Mullins of Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough, LLP about access to justice. He reminded me that many South Carolinians with mental illness face numerous barriers to access to justice.

And it’s true. Prior to my Commission work, I assisted people with disabilities, many with mental illness, in their struggle with civil rights violations. I saw people battling depression who defaulted on custody and divorce actions because they were so overwhelmed by their illness. Other people struggled with their bipolar disorder, cycling through manic and depressive states, sometimes running up bills and other times unable to pay bills.

I was reminded of the nefarious link between mental health and barriers to justice when I read about Addie Polk in Ohio. Ms. Polk is a 90 year old woman who shot herself while sheriff’s deputies tried to evict her.  Add to that, this economic slump/recession/depression/downturn/collapse/etc. has just begun. 

Maybe if Ms. Polk had access to legal services or a pro bono attorney, she would have not become so desperate, so distraught, so despondent. It’s likely she thought she was unable to afford an attorney. That’s where access to justice becomes crucial. There are many resources available, but not knowing that there are resources, coupled with not knowing where to find them, that’s when people lose hope.

The financial decline may subside, but this is not about money. This is about lives. And when someone loses their home – it deeply affects them. And, in turn, their mental well-being.

That’s when barriers to justice impact the public, when they impact people who are emotionally fragile.

Please consider supporting access to justice! Contact your local legal services office or your local Bar Foundation.

For Ms. Polk and others like her.

-RFW