Equal Access to Civil Justice: Pursuing Solutions Beyond the Legal Profession
Posted: 8 Jan 2000
When the fundamental principles of fairness and equal justice through the rule of law are shaken, the cornerstones of our democratic society are threatened. Respect for justice and laws is diminished when large segments of our society do not have equal access to civil justice because they cannot obtain legal assistance to resolve disputes that touch on the very basics of life (e.g., health care, food, and shelter) or to seek legal redress of their grievances.
Recent studies show that only one-fourth of poor California families with a civil legal problem receive full or partial legal assistance. Not reflected in this statistic are the many people above the poverty line and of moderate means who experience serious legal problems but neither can afford to pay a private attorney nor qualify for free legal services. Without legal assistance, many of these low- or moderate-income Californians either simply give up or experience the frustration of representing themselves. The persistent failure of the justice system to help them has led them to conclude that justice is not for all.
While lawyers throughout the country collectively provide millions of pro bono hours each year, this outstanding contribution simply does not provide full representation for the growing numbers of civil indigent. Similarly, despite efforts by the judiciary to address the skyrocketing numbers of unrepresented parties, judges acknowledge that those who appear in pro per do not fare well in a contest in which the other side has an attorney. The long history of traditional justice improvement efforts undertaken by committees of lawyers and judges demonstrates that the bar and bench alone cannot achieve access to justice for all.
To reach this goal, the entire community must be partners in the effort. Indeed, a new model for change is clearly emerging - one that reaches beyond bench and bar to the community at large. Across the country, citizen-justice system partnerships are at work identifying local problems and addressing them with local solutions. These partnerships recognize that equal access to civil justice is the business of the whole community. They recognize that only the whole community can provide the needed resources and solutions.
One example of this model, the California Commission on Access to Justice (CCAJ), has worked to establish such partnerships since convening in fall 1997. Comprised of judges, attorneys, academics, leaders of business, labor unions, community nonprofits, and political appointees, CCAJ and efforts like it are absolutely necessary if we are to increase statewide funding for legal services to the poor, develop innovative and less expensive delivery of legal service for all, and make the system more accessible and user-friendly.
In this article we briefly detail the problem: most poor and moderate-income people cannot effectively resolve their legal disputes, and our society has not yet embraced its role in correcting this failure of our justice system. Next, we describe why the whole community must respond to the crisis by looking more closely at the CCAJ and similar partnerships, and the diverse community-wide interests served when we meet people's legal needs. We conclude with the optimism with which we approach the Access to Justice Commission work. There are tangible reasons to believe that we can multiply justice and distribute it broadly.
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