Plan to give low-income access to civil courts
The Supreme Court is creating an Access to Justice Commission to help ensure that Hawaii residents have an equal chance in the state's civil courts even if they cannot afford a lawyer, Chief Justice Ronald Moon announced today.
"We in the Judiciary look forward to working with other commission members in helping to find concrete solutions to increasing access to justice for low- and moderate-income residents," Moon said, marking the 50th anniversary of Law Day.
While the Constitution guarantees a lawyer to anyone accused of a crime, victims in civil cases are generally out of luck if they cannot pay for a lawyer. An estimated 77 percent of low- and moderate-income people in Hawaii -- or about 231,000 people -- do not get their civil legal needs met, according to a 2007 report, "Achieving Access to Justice for Hawaii's People."
The issues they face can be vital -- from protecting their children from abuse to hanging on to their homes. The idea behind the commission is to focus high-level, concerted attention on the problem. Moon named Associate Justice Simeon Acoba of the Supreme Court to head the group, which will include representatives from the Legislature, administration and legal service providers.
"Chief Justice Moon has been a prime mover in the Judiciary's efforts to afford equal access to the courts to those who, up until now, have faced barriers that have been insurmountable," Acoba said. "We hope the commission will bring a lasting institutional commitment to removing such obstacles for all in our statewide community."
The report issued by the Access to Justice Hui, and funded by the Hawaii Justice Foundation and the Hawaii State Bar Association, outlined 10 recommendations. One step was to secure stable state funding for civil legal services, rather than the current "grants in aid" process, which is subject to economic and political pressures.
That issue was underscored this week.
With lawmakers concerned about a weak economy, state funding for Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii was sliced by a third, to $400,000 from $600,000 last year. Na Loio Immigrant Rights and Public Policy Center saw its allotment cut to $290,000 from $424,000. But representatives of both groups said they were grateful for the money, since many nonprofits got nothing this year.
"We are greatly appreciative of the funding we received this year," said Patricia McManaman, chief executive officer of Na Loio. "We understand this is not only a difficult time for the state, but also for the people of Hawaii. Na Loio's board is actively searching for ways to ensure that our needed services are not reduced as a result of this unfortunate turn of events."
Even before those cuts, legal aid providers in Hawaii had been able to serve just one out of three people who contacted them for help, according to the 2007 report. And needy people do not often know enough to contact them in the first place. Along with the cost barrier, many face language and cultural barriers and are not sure of their legal rights or what services are available.
"The establishment of the commission is a recognition that we have a serious problem with access to justice in Hawaii for low- and moderate-income residents and that we need to do something about it," said Chuck Greenfield, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii.
JUSTICE FOR ALL|
The Access to Justice Commission's goal is to substantially increase access to justice for low- and moderate-income residents by:
» Developing and publicizing a strategic, integrated plan for statewide delivery of civl legal services.
» Increasing and stabilizing long-term public and private funding and resources for delivery of civil legal services.
» Increasing pro bono contributions by attorneys through such things as rule changes, recruitment campaigns and increased judicial involvement.
» Reducing barriers to the civil justice system by developing resources to overcome language, cultural and other barriers.