High court makes right boost for legal services to needy
The state Supreme Court plans in May to create an Access to Justice Commission to expand legal services to the needy.
The state Supreme Court's requirement that Hawaii lawyers report free services they provided to people who can't afford to pay for legal help has resulted in a doubling of donated time reported. The new rule has been a success, and the Hawaii State Bar Association plans to take an important next step by creating a commission to lead expansion of legal services for the needy.
Only 27.4 percent of Hawaii's nearly 7,000 lawyers voluntarily reported providing free -- pro bono -- services in 2006. The high court adopted a requirement in October that all lawyers report whether they have provided free services, and 47 percent reported having donated 200,000 hours to provide legal help to people who cannot afford an attorney.
The Bar Association had objected to the proposed requirement last July, and Chief Justice Ronald T.Y. Moon said he was "totally disappointed and dismayed" by the association's stance.
The need can be expected to grow unless the economy makes an unforeseen rebound. Volunteer Legal Services of Hawaii, which offers free or low-cost legal help to low-income residents, received more than 9,000 calls for help last year, up from 6,000 in 2003, according to Moya Davenport, executive director.
Lawyers should follow the example of Ellen Politano, a single mother and family law attorney who put in more than 200 hours last year on pro bono cases. Her clients included Sharma Torres, who had lost custody of her 6-month-old daughter Anjelina to her abusive husband, who out-staged her in military court.
Donating time through Volunteer Legal Services, Politano reviewed the case and determined that Torres had been wrongly portrayed in court. When Anjelina's father violated a court order by moving to the mainland with her, Politano won for Torres full custody of her daughter.
"There are a lot of women out there who are in my situation, but they don't have the financial means to hire a lawyer and no lawyer is willing to help them," Torres told the Star-Bulletin's Susan Essoyan. "Without legal representation, I don't think I would ever have gotten Anjelina back."
A study by the Access to Justice Hui, comprised of legal service providers to the needy, found that 77 percent of the state's low-income residents are unable to acquire legal assistance when they need it. The Supreme Court requirement came at the hui's urging.
Rather than allow the hui's study to gather dust, the high court plans on May 1 to create an Access to Justice Commission, comprised of the governor and attorney general or their representatives, a Supreme Court justice, judges, legislative leaders and legal service providers. The commission will be given the important mission of providing leadership and continuity in expanding pro bono services.