Barriers keep poor from justice, study finds
Only one in five poor Hawaii residents are able to resolve their legal problems, according to a study released yesterday that found affordable legal help has failed to keep pace with the state's growing low-income population.
Besides being unable to pay for an attorney, Hawaii's estimated 300,000 poor residents -- about a quarter of the state's population -- also have language and cultural barriers and little knowledge about available services or their rights, according to a report prepared by the Access to Justice Hui, a group of legal organizations.
The 193-page study, "Achieving Access to Justice for Hawaii's People," was funded by the Hawaii State Bar Association and the Hawaii Justice Foundation to update findings of a 1993 survey that estimated legal services were available to fewer than 10 percent of poor isle residents.
Currently, legal providers are able to assist only one in three people who seek help, said James Kawachika, the justice foundation's president.
"This is not much different, if not worse, than it was 14 years ago," he said. "We have re-gauged the seriousness of the problem that exists out there and have been given a road map of things that can be done to correct it."
The hui report lists 10 steps that can be taken by 2010 to ease the problem, ranging from encouraging private attorneys to do more work for free, increasing student interest in poverty law, providing translation services in court and creating a commission to promote and monitor progress toward giving legal assistance to the poor.
"These steps are achievable," said Robert LeClair, the foundation's executive director. "We believe we can make a huge dent in this problem."
Representatives of organizations say they already are working on some of those initiatives.
Since the mid-1990s, the University of Hawaii's law school has required students to log 60 hours of volunteer work to get a diploma, said Dean Aviam Soifer. A graduate class of 90 students would translate to more than 5,000 hours of free legal services, he said, noting that students themselves called for the prerequisite.
"The students are really committed to this, and the faculty as well," said Soifer, who helped compile the hui study.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii was able to file a lawsuit on behalf of parents of homeless children only because of partnerships with groups such as the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii and Lawyers for Equal Justice, said ACLU attorney Laurie Temple. The suit alleges the state has failed to provide the youngsters with adequate education.