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Florida To Review Access To Civil Justice

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Judge C. Robert Hilliard
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Santa Rosa County Judge C. Robert Hilliard has been tapped to serve on the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice.

State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga recently signed an administrative order creating the panel, which will study the unmet legal needs of the state’s lower income residents.

“Simply put, those who can afford it will have civil justice. Those who cannot afford it (civil justice), will not,” said Chief Justice Labarga, getting to the heart of the matter.

The kinds of cases that are handled in civil courts involve family law, foreclosure, and landlord/tenant and consumer liability.

Labarga made the announcement last week in the rotunda of the Supreme Court Building. He says access to civil court justice for Florida’s poor and middle class has become a challenge for the state’s legal system that has now reached a crisis point.

“Only 20% of indigent persons are able to receive legal counsel in civil cases. Moreover, many working class Floridians find themselves in the predicament of earning too much to quality for legal aid, but not enough to afford to hire a lawyer.”

People in the working class include teachers, firefighters, police officers, and plumbers, who have earnings in the range of $50,000 per year.

Emerson Thompson is president of the Florida Bar Foundation, which distributes money to the state’s 30 legal aid organizations, including Northwest Florida Legal Services. Thompson, who is a former trial judge, says it’s about access and the civil court’s ability to render fair decisions in cases that most often involve life-altering family law issues.

“You’re talking about the basic things that make life livable. Do I have shelter? Are my children going to be protected if I’m in dissolution? And, child support is ordered, but I can’t get it even though the spouse to pay has the ability to pay,” Thompson said as an example of the types of family issues to come before the courts.

In terms of affordability, a struggling economy has been a factor. Also, Thompson’s organization has had less money to distribute due to drastic reductions in federal and state financial resources that once funded legal assistance programs.

With less funding available, Florida Bar President Greg Coleman says the commission will be looking outside the box to address the issue by finding and building a repository of ‘access programs’ that are now available.

“And, there are some really good access programs that don’t require state funding. They require creative ways to fund them. So, we at the Florida Bar, in conjunction with this commission, are going to create an ala carte menu. And, we’re going to immediately start utilizing these programs and implementing them statewide,” Coleman said.

The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice is a 27-person panel that includes the legal community, the other branches of state government, and the private sector, such as Disney, Publix & Cheney Brothers.

The only local appointee is Santa Rosa County Judge Robert Hilliard.

When I heard that I had been appointed, I was very happy to serve in this particular capacity, because this affects all Floridians, but particularly people in our area who are some of the main focuses of the work of this commission,” said Hilliard.

Hilliard is a County Court judge and says in his courtroom he often sees this ‘lack of access to civil justice’ in the form of Landlord/Tenant cases.

He says sometimes the cases involve tenants unable to pay the rent and find themselves in dispute with a landlord that finds its way to court either as an eviction or effort to get the landlord to perform according to the lease. “Many times they can’t afford to get a lawyer so will be proceeding pro se or self-represented. And, even so, they’re still held to the same standards, the same laws.”  That’s the same standard as required by trained attorneys.

During its term, the Commission has been tasked with a number of objectives such as provide a forum for discussion of the issue of access to civil justice; identify and examine barriers to civil justice; and determine how to promote coordination of legal services delivery to low income residents. Additionally, the panel will be looking at how members can maximize available resources and identify new ones.

Already being reviewed by Judge Hilliard, as a member of the Florida Court’s Technology Commission, is the task of examining ways to leverage technology in expanding access to civil justice. He references a computer-based system that provides guidance to self-represented people in finding and filling out various legal forms required that in court.

The Florida Commission an Access to Civil Justice is one of about 30 such task forces across the country. The panel is expected to present an interim report to Chief Justice Labarga no later than October 1, 2015. A final report and recommendations to the Supreme Court are due no later than June 30, 2016.