Column: Removing barriers to civil justice

Published Oct. 16, 2015

The issue of access to civil justice is a subject that is very dear to me — and to the entire Florida Supreme Court, to the leaders of the Florida Bar and to a great number of people who have dedicated years of their lives to it.

I was born in Cuba in the early 1950s. The events I witnessed there as a young boy helped shape my view of the world. I heard my parents and other adults talk a lot about the concept of democracy and I saw them struggle to obtain it. But they never got it.

Of all the things Fidel Castro did immediately after seizing power to ensure the survival of his dictatorship, two such actions can readily be characterized as the most devastating to Cuban dreams of democracy. The first was absolute control of the press and the second was absolute control of the country's judicial system.

Access to courts and access to information — these are the first things to go when democracy is being undermined.

But the threat to access to a fair and impartial judicial system in the United States does not come from Castro-wannabe types. The threat is driven by economic disparity. Simply put, those who can afford it will have access to civil justice; those who cannot afford it will not.

Although the economy is improving, the national recession has had a significant impact on people who use the court system. I am particularly concerned about our lower-income litigants — for whom purchasing legal representation poses a significant, if not impossible, challenge.

Only 20 percent of indigent persons receive legal counsel in civil cases. Moreover, many working-class Floridians do not qualify for legal aid and cannot afford to hire a lawyer.

I'm talking about the repair person who fixes your air conditioner in the middle of summer and is trying to raise a family while making about $40,000 a year. Or the schoolteacher, firefighter or plumber who is trying to raise a family while making about the same amount.

These folks cannot afford to hire a lawyer when they find themselves in a legal bind that competent legal representation may be able to solve — in many instances without much effort. Indeed, the number of self-represented litigants has increased over the past decades. The majority of family law-related matters in most states now include at least one unrepresented party. How many of these people give up precious rights because they cannot afford a lawyer?

Again, the problem of access to civil justice is not just a matter for the very poor. It is also a problem for America's middle class.

The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice was established last fall to identify ways to remove barriers to civil justice. Created in partnership with the Florida Bar and the Florida Bar Foundation, the commission is determined to build on the great work that others started here in Florida and have been working hard to implement — with limited resources.

Many caring Floridians have already dedicated their careers to this issue. Thanks to their efforts, we made great strides in providing forms in family law matters to help people who go into court on their own. Legal aid societies, despite resources stretched to the limit, have been there all along representing people who would otherwise not have access to our civil justice system. And members of the Florida Bar have donated thousands of pro bono hours to needy citizens.

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But we must now take it to the next level, bearing in mind that the question of access to our civil justice system is a societal question. As such, the solution rests with all segments of society.

The Access Commission has brought together the three branches of government, the Bar, civil legal aid providers, the business community and other stakeholders in a coordinated effort to identify and remove barriers to civil justice.

The interim report we released this month gives details about the broad contours of what the commission is proposing. I urge you to read it, if only because you will find many details there of projects and new forms of legal help that — when implemented — will have a great impact on justice in our communities and our state.

Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga joined the Florida Supreme Court in January 2009 and is the first Cuban-American to serve in that capacity. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times. The Interim Report can be found at