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Access To Justice Commission Targeting Veterans

Bob Barrett

A state commission that helps low-income people get access to legal help in civil matters had a meeting in Pensacola, Friday to take a look at the legal needs of veterans.

The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice was formed to help disadvantaged, low-income and moderate-income Floridians get access to civil courts for things like divorce, adoption, orders of protection, name change, and other family law issues. The first such commission was started in 1994 in Washington State. Now 36 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands have Access to Civil Justice Commissions.

In 2014, Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga appointed the first members of Florida’s commission. The commission was only set up to last for two years, but in 2016 it was made permanent. "The state of Florida cannot be without an access commission given all the issues that a lot of people are having (getting) access to legal services," said Justice Labarga. He was speaking at a meeting of the commission in Pensacola Friday morning. "It is important to hold these meetings in different parts of our diverse and large state. It gives us a chance (to give) the people of the state (an opportunity) to see the work of the access commission actually taking place. It allows us to bring into focus issue particular to different regions."

And the main issue discussed at the meeting in Pensacola is helping veterans get access to legal aid. "Florida is home to 21 military bases. There are 1.5 million veterans who live in Florida, and more than 92,000 military active duty personnel and civilian military employees in the state of Florida." Justice Labarga pointed out that the panhandle has a large concentration of these bases and these veterans. "To those people, we offer our thanks, as well as our commitment to pursue access to justice solutions."

The commission has developed the Florida Courts Help app, that can help people quickly locate legal help in their area, and last year the Florida Bar launched a website called Florida Free Legal Answers. Since last May more than 650 lawyers have answered close to 2,400 legal questions on the site. Justice Labarga says this is all being done without a budget. "We are pretty much doing this on our own here, with the thanks of the Florida Bar and the Florida Bar Foundation. Hopefully, in the future, we will have some type of funding where we can actually start assisting local legal aid societies. And we're also trying to get lawyers to donate more pro bono hours. So we are looking into it. Not just for the poor, but middle-class people as well."