Column: Elections matter and access to justice issues should count

Published October 26 2018

According to the Census Bureau, there are nearly three million Floridians living in poverty, approximately 14 percent of Florida’s population. One in six children in Florida are hurt by poverty, and 80 percent of Floridians can’t afford a lawyer when faced with civil legal issues.

Florida is one of only two states that do not have state funding for civil legal aid. In contrast, Texas, the nation’s second-most populous state, appropriates approximately $50 million for civil legal aid. New York, with the country’s fourth-largest population, appropriates $100 million for civil legal aid. Florida, America’s third-most populous state, provides zero. If Idaho passes pending legislation to fund civil legal aid, Florida will be the only state in the nation that does not fund civil legal assistance for its children, elderly, veterans, disaster victims and other vulnerable Floridians. It’s hard to accept that Florida — with its tremendous resources — does not promote access to justice through legal aid funding. Each of us should encourage our politicians and candidates for statewide and local office to address issues of poverty and access to justice in their campaigns.

Meaningful access to justice promotes and protects the Rule of Law, which is essential to a strong and stable democracy. When people lose faith in their ability to seek redress from their legal system, they take to the streets and sometimes resort to violence.

When indigent Floridians face criminal charges, they are guaranteed legal counsel. However, Floridians with a civil legal issue must go it alone if they cannot afford a lawyer. Simply put, low-income people facing legal issues fall farther behind.

Cases handled by lawyers settle more than 95 percent of the time, lightening the load on an already overburdened judicial system. Providing civil legal assistance to those unable to afford an attorney provides people with a meaningful opportunity to be heard in a court of law to resolve — or at least mitigate — their civil legal problems. However, the lack of funding for legal aid severely limits the number of services that legal aid attorneys can offer and the number of people they can help. Because of a lack of funding, legal aid attorneys are required to prioritize whom they can assist, often requiring people facing life-altering problems to go it alone in the court system.

A Colorado Center on Law and Policy study found that renters who lacked legal representation were evicted from private housing 68 percent of the time while those who were represented by counsel were evicted only 6 percent of the time. Eviction and foreclosure not only tear at the fabric of a family, they negatively impact neighborhoods by lowering property values, reducing property tax rolls and increasing neighborhood crime rates. By contrast, preventing a veteran and his or her family from losing their home can allow the veteran to retain his or her job and remain a taxpayer.

Funding civil legal aid is not a partisan issue. In fact, the Florida Access to Civil Legal Assistance Act (FACLA) was signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush in 2002. Every year thereafter until 2015, the Florida Legislature voted to fund the act. And while the Florida Legislature remained uniformly supportive of funding for civil legal aid, after four consecutive gubernatorial line item vetoes, the Legislature simply stopped appropriating such funding.

A 2016 study by the Resource for Great Programs found that civil legal assistance creates more than 2,200 jobs in Florida’s communities. And, for every dollar spent on legal aid, $7.19 of positive economic impact is generated.

When I cast my vote in this election, I will factor these issues into my decision. Candidates who thoughtfully consider these important issues should be thoughtfully considered. Candidates who espouse divisive positions or who fail to address the societal and financial consequences of ignoring the poor and less fortunate will not get my vote.

It is unfair that our justice system is only accessible by those with enough money to endure the process. Merit, not money, should be the deciding factor when it comes to justice.

For the good of our state and country, we must find ways to provide meaningful access to justice to everyone.

Kathleen McLeroy is past president of the Florida Bar Foundation, a 501(c)(3) public charity established in 1956 to foster law-related public interest programs. Its primary mission is to provide greater access to justice through leadership and funding.