Bar News - November 3, 2006
No One Asks To Be Poor
By: John T. Broderick, Chief Justice, NH Supreme Court
Hon. John T. Broderick
This past winter I met on separate occasions in the courtroom at the Supreme Court with most of the managing directors of New Hampshire’s 30 largest law firms, past presidents of the NH Bar Association, and the NH Fellows of the American College of Trial Lawyers. I also had occasion to speak with the board of the NH Trial Lawyers Association. Everyone graciously listened to my plea for their help to more aggressively assist in addressing the challenges to the administration of justice posed by the rising pro se population in our courthouses. To be sure, some of the self-represented choose to represent themselves, as is their right, but I suspect most would opt for a lawyer if they could afford one. Lawyers add value and their wisdom matters.
Some of you have stepped up to the challenge and I am most grateful for your help and value your leadership. Some of you have been quietly carrying the load for years and you have my admiration and respect. But, my goal is to get more of you involved. The NH Bar has a proud history of assisting the less fortunate to navigate the legal system, but all of us—the courts included—need to challenge ourselves to do more. Now is the time.
My colleagues and I are invested in institutional change within the Judicial Branch to address the needs of the self-represented while at the same time seeking new ways to connect lawyers to the real-world problems of the disadvantaged. We have brought alternative dispute resolution into some of our courthouses and will continue to infuse the system with this needed service at all levels. We need to create off-ramps and provide a mechanism for citizens and small businesses to play a more active role in fashioning their own solutions when a lawyer is not an option. At the same time, we are among a small-but-growing number of states that now allow for unbundled legal services. Hopefully, this will connect more lawyers with more clients. Ultimately, that’s the real goal. We need more lawyers in our courthouses, not fewer.
Very soon Justice James Duggan and Chief Judge Steven McAuliffe of the US District Court will kick off the newly formed Access to Justice Commission. This group will forge new ideas to address the challenges we face, and channel and focus our energies to meet those challenges. I expect that the commission, over time, will make a range of recommendations on how we can better organize to more effectively address the expanding needs of the unrepresented. The commission is a big step forward and through its efforts and permanency the courts and the profession will, I hope, take greater responsibility for making the justice system more accessible, affordable, and understandable. In my view, the status quo is not the answer.
Over 97,500 of our fellow citizens live in poverty as measured by the federal poverty guidelines. These guidelines, however, are unrealistically low. For example, a two-person family can make no more than $12,755 a year and a family of four no more than $19,971 annually if they are to qualify for legal assistance. Many more people are struggling to survive with little ability to afford a lawyer. Over 200,000 people are eligible under the guidelines employed by our three main legal services organizations—NH Pro Bono Referral Program, NH Legal Assistance and the Legal Advice and Referral Center. Many of those people are forced to go it alone as evidenced by the dramatic rise in pro se litigation. It is difficult for many of us to imagine what it would be like to confront a legal problem and need help to address it but not be able to afford a lawyer. It’s a lot like diagnosing and treating a medical problem without a doctor. Thousands of our fellow citizens find themselves in just that situation every year.
I recognize that the obligation to knock down barriers to our courthouses does not rest with the Judicial Branch and the profession alone. I envision stronger partnerships among all branches of state government and the private bar in finally confronting, in a meaningful way, the legal needs of the poor in our state. In recent times the legislature has been increasingly helpful with funding and I am hopeful this will continue. Perhaps we can also interest the private sector in becoming involved in finding a solution.
There can be no question, however, that without the full-fledged support of New Hampshire lawyers the legal needs of the poor will never be adequately addressed. I fully understand how difficult and competitive the practice of law has become and how essential it is for you to advance the needs and interests of paying clients. That is as it should be. I fully understand the realities of current day law practice and the pressures you face. I realize the stresses you deal with each day. I would respectfully suggest, however, that it is equally important for the profession to be available in meaningful numbers to ensure that the courts of our state are truly open to the poor as well as the wealthy, not only in principle but in practice.
Maintaining public trust and confidence in the courts and the profession of law is fundamental to the administration of justice. One of the great strengths of our state is its long history of cordial and professional relationships between the bench and the bar. On so many issues over many decades we have worked cooperatively and thoughtfully to improve and enhance the justice system for the people it serves and I am confident that we can do so again to more fully respond to the unmet legal needs of the poor.
I will be visiting approximately 15 randomly-selected law firms over the next several months to discuss with groups of lawyers the nature of the unmet need and the Judicial Branch response to meet it, and to learn what the bar is currently doing to assist. My colleagues and I need the benefit of your counsel and your help, and I remain confident that our discussions will lead to results. I welcome your ideas and look forward to learning what you think the courts can do that we are not now doing.
I am mindful, as you are, that no one asks to be poor and that the justice system has to be subtle enough, compassionate enough, and open enough to provide justice to everyone who seeks it, regardless of means or station. Failing that, the promise of the system rings hollow.
I genuinely look forward to our discussions in the weeks ahead and would also appreciate hearing from those of you whom I will not have the opportunity to speak with personally.
My goal is to make New Hampshire and its lawyers number one in the United States in addressing the legal needs of the poor. It’s a big challenge; but I know your character, skill, and commitment and am confident we can meet this goal together.