LSC Board Holds Second Forum on the State of Civil Legal Assistance

August 9, 2012

A day before convening its July 27th meeting in Ann Arbor Michigan, the LSC Board of Directors hosted a forum on the state of civil legal services in the United States that included four state chief justices.  

In his opening remarks for the forum, which was held at the University of Michigan Law School, LSC Board Chairman John G. Levi explained that the event was the second of several LSC plans to hold around the country to spotlight “the twin challenges now facing legal services programs across the country – significantly reduced resources and historically high demand.”

The first forum, held in April, was co-hosted by the White House. Read about, and see photos and video from the White House Forum.

The Ann Arbor forum began with a panel of judges: Hon. Denise Page Hood of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, together with state supreme court chief justices Mark Cady of Iowa, Cornelia Clark of Tennessee, Thomas Kilbride of Illinois, and Richard Teitelman of Missouri.  Harvard Law School Dean and LSC Board Vice Chair Martha Minow moderated the panel.

The panelists discussed how, in a climate of eroding resources, their courts are attempting to address issues such as language access for non-English-speaking individuals, and providing support to help pro se litigants navigate the court system.  They also talked about the importance of collaboration among equal justice stakeholders to garner adequate resources and bring about necessary change.

“We say over and over, it’s become our mantra and we say it everywhere we go: A community is only as strong as the justice it can provide to its most vulnerable citizens, whoever they are, whatever their challenges are.”
             - Chief Justice Cornelia Clark of Tennessee

In response to a question about whether the panelists have seen evidence of more people having difficulty gaining access to justice, Chief Justice Clark of Tennessee said, “In both the court system and our administrative system we simply find more people who come and have no idea what has been going on, or who don’t appear when they are summoned because they didn’t understand the papers that were delivered to them, or they don’t speak English as first language, or they simply have no idea what the system is about.”
Chief Justice Teitelman agreed.  Citing statistics that show increases in domestic violence and homelessness among other issues, “There’s a huge demand for the services” in Missouri, he said.

Chief Justice Cady of Iowa said he has seen the same thing in his state. Because of the closure of specialty courts, and reduction in other services due to budgetary constraints he said, “I can conclude that we are denying more and more access to the people that perhaps need us the most.”

The panelists also discussed the challenges presented by increasing numbers of pro se litigants who attempt – whether by choice or necessity – to navigate the courts with very little understanding of how they work.  Some of the strategies courts have employed to address those challenges include standardizing filing forms across jurisdictions, providing information online and via pro se help desks, and utilizing the time and expertise of pro bono attorneys.
Judge Hood described “Law Day” events, where pro bono attorneys are available to review documents and answer questions to help self-represented litigants better understand their cases. “That seems to be a very effective way of getting information to people,” she said.

A significant challenge mentioned by several of the panelists is the growing number of individuals with limited English proficiency (LEP) who need access to the courts.

“Providing access through language with interpreters obviously is not a free exercise,” said Chief Justice Kilbride of Illinois, adding that improving language access in the courts is a focus of the state’s new Access to Justice Commission.

One overarching theme that emerged across all of the topic areas was the importance of working together to achieve shared objectives and the need to communicate that access to justice is an issue that affects the whole community.

John Levi's Opening Remarks

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Photos by Shawn DeLoach/Michigan Law School
John Levi, Board Chairman  
LSC Board of Directors Chairman John G. Levi delivers opening remarks at Pro Bono awards ceremony.