This year is the 50th anniversary of Law Day, which was signed into law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The theme this year is "The Rule of Law — Foundation for Communities of Opportunity and Equity." This theme is rather broad, but suggests to me we should use this opportunity to reflect on some of the basic requirements for achieving equity and justice in our legal system.
We are fortunate to live in the United States, a great country of opportunity where one of the foundations of our freedoms and liberties is the American legal system. Through the American legal system, our democratic process of government offers opportunity and attempts to achieve equity for all. One of the bulwarks of that legal system, and the community building-block for offering opportunity and attempting to achieve equity for all, is the accessibility to the courts, such that legal grievances may be addressed effectively and in an orderly manner. These are concepts that Americans often take for granted, but should not, as the guarantees of accessibility to the courts and orderly and efficient administration of justice do not exist uniformly throughout the world.
As great as our legal heritage is, there are always general and specific issues present in this country that cause some concerns as to the effective functioning of the legal system at any given time. This year, two general concerns undeniably come to mind.
Better funding system for courts needed
The first concern is particularly pertinent in light of recent budgetary concerns: adequate funding for the court system. The legal system can only work as well as the tools that are provided to make it function effectively. The tools of the legal system are many, but include and are not limited to location and sufficient space for effective court proceedings; adequate, well-trained and motivated judges; available, affordable and competent legal counsel; adequate state attorneys, public defenders and other public lawyers; court reporting systems; and (certainly not last nor least) clerks, clerical staff and such.
In our system of justice, most of these functions, save the private attorneys, are provided at taxpayer expense. Though suggestions have been made to privatize the system in some ways (such as private mediators to resolve certain cases), our system of justice is not likely to become significantly privatized anytime soon. Hence, the processes that we rely upon for efficient justice all involve a considerable expenditure of taxpayer funds.
This year the court finds itself in a severe economic downtrend. Sales taxes, which are currently used by the state to fund the legal system, are not sufficient to maintain the current funding. Even though the entire court system for Florida uses less than 1 percent of the entire budget, there is a real possibility the court budget will be significantly cut and court services reduced.
Each year, the courts face the possibility that funding of a particular court service or function will be drastically reduced. Regardless of whether the service is provided by the county (through ad valorem taxation), or through the state (by sales tax revenue), the court system is constantly battling for its share of the funding available in order to provide the services necessary to keep the courts smoothly functioning and efficiently operating.
In an ideal world, residents would each year get the quality of justice they so rightly deserve. However, as we are constrained by the realities of limited funding and other financial concerns, as it stands, residents will get only the quality of justice for which they are willing and able to pay.
Assuming justice and access to the court to each resident is an important concept in our democratic process, then some way must be found to adequately fund the system on a regular basis so that each year the court system need not engage in an ongoing battle over what services shall remain available and what services must be terminated. Justice is far too important a principle to be bartered on an annual basis in that manner.
Everyone needs competent counsel
The second component of access to the court that I wish to address is that of having competent counsel to assist each citizen in their quest for justice. A recent trend in the legal system is that, with increasing frequency, people appear before the courts pro se (representing themselves and without an attorney).
To some extent, this may be because the courts have facilitated pro se representation by supplying forms and generic information regarding the use of the forms. Another reason for this trend may be, especially in these difficult economic times, that more and more people are unable to afford the services of an attorney.
Whatever the reasons may be for the reduction in private legal representation, in order to more fully and properly use the access to the courts that our federal and state constitutions guarantee, competent legal counsel is extremely helpful.
To suggest that an individual without legal training, simply by filling out a few legal forms, can compete with a qualified and trained lawyer is ludicrous. It is akin to a person on a bicycle expecting to win the Daytona 500.
The legal system needs to continue to be improved and to be adequately funded so that lay people can either afford to hire competent counsel, or public lawyers, such as those available through legal services (legal aid), will be available to represent those without adequate funds.
Americans need to adequately fund our legal services system so the great aspirational goal of our Founding Fathers — liberty and justice for all (communities of opportunity and equity) — may be truly achieved.
Richard Tombrink Jr. is a 5th Judicial Circuit judge in Brooksville. Guest columnists write their own views on subjects they choose, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this newspaper.