Ensuring Access to Justice in Tough Economic Times

Article excerpt

Seven specific suggestions for the beleaguered but visionary court leader

Courts are facing perhaps dieir greatest challenge in a generation or more. As we enter what will be at best a time of great economic uncertainly, we will experience great pressure on budgets at the very time that demand for court services will increase, and in which lack of financial resources will further increase the percentage of those who come to court without lawyers. Unless appropriately addressed, not only will this result in greater backlogs, more crowded calendars, and a potential loss of public trust and confidence, but it will put court staff and judges under great stress, leading to a vicious spiral further reducing the effectiveness and efficiency of the courts.

Faced with these realities, court leaders really have no alternative. Leaders at the state, local, and national level have to find zero or very low cost innovations that will break this vicious spiral, and make our courts more efficient, more effective, more accessible, and perhaps most importandy on a day to day basis, more enjoyable and rewarding places to work and judge.

The good news is that access to justice innovators have developed and tested a number of innovative approaches that achieve all these goals, while requiring relatively small or easily found upfront investment and minor ongoing expenditures, at least relative to most transformative new programs. These innovations include training for staff on how they can be helpful to litigants, educational programs forjudges on managing the challenges of a courtroom filled with the self-represented, partnering with law libraries and universities so diat they speed court processes by assisting litigants to prepare, and creating, through the establishment of attorney discrete task representation programs, a new, financially rewarding role for attorneys that also helps the court run more smoothly.

Many of diese innovations, such as educational programs and use of law libraries, can be put in place by taking advantage of existing staff, structures, and programs; others make extensive use of bar and volunteer participation to minimize both upfront and ongoing costs. (In some cases, the programs will be most effective with dedicated staff, but can be launched, and can demonstrate impact, with volunteers, or as part of existing initiatives such as access to justice groups.) What is most exciting about diese innovations is that they all help with every aspect of the court, speeding cases, making the work of staff easier, giving judges more of a sense that they make a difference, convincing the public that the court is accessible, and reconnecting attorneys to a financially viable role in the courthouse.

While much of the initial work of developing, testing, improving, and assessing these evaluations focused first on self-represented litigants, one of the most encouraging and fascinating findings has been the extent to which, when deployed, they not only work for all litigants, including the represented, but also make it easier for people to obtain lawyers, for lawyers to obtain clients, and for staff and judges to enjoy their work in all kinds of cases. In other words, the impact is on the whole system.

Because all the suggestions described below have been tested and have succeeded in the real world of the courts, they are supported by already available models, resources, general cost analyses, and even recommendations on the best steps to implementation.

One: Staff and clerk training

Generations of court clerks and staff have been trained to turn away requests for assistance with the mantra that "Clerks cannot provide legal advice." The result is that litigants become irritated or angry, and often have no choice but to file incomplete or inaccurate papers. Clerks can hardly feel good about the interaction, but worst of all is that judges end up being forced to try to decide cases based on confused and incomplete paperwork after hearing from litigants who have no idea what the process is about. …