Bar News - April 20, 2007
‘Access to Justice’ Mission: More Lawyers for Critical Cases
By: Dan Wise
Over the past few years, the NH courts and legal system have been the subject of examination by a succession of task forces and commissions. Yet another group has been formed and has quietly set to work – not to study, but to actually implement changes to improve citizens’ access to the courts.
The Access to Justice Commission, say co-chairs Steven McAuliffe, chief judge of the US District Court, District of New Hampshire, and NH Supreme Court Associate Justice James Duggan, is not about conducting a short-term, intensive study of problems with the goal of making recommendations. It is a group of people appointed for the long term and representing all sectors — the courts, the legal profession, lawmakers, and citizens — who are focusing on finding ways to accomplish goals identified by some of the earlier groups — such as the Citizens Commission on the State Courts, the Task Force on Self-Represented Litigants, and the Task Force on the Status of the Legal Profession. “This is not a short-term effort,” said McAuliffe. “We are not the theoreticians. We are the implementers.” (See accompanying list of the Commission’s specific duties.)
Another important distinction made by Judges McAuliffe and Duggan is that while the Access to Justice Commission was created by the NH Supreme Court, it is not designed to solely report to it. The Commission will be approaching and working with whatever entity or branch of government has the ability to make the necessary changes, in McAuliffe’s words, “to find ways to get lawyers more involved. The idea is to help people obtain competent legal representation when they need it.”
The Access to Justice Commission, Duggan said, “takes seriously” the recommendation that the justice system move toward the goal of establishing a “civil Gideon” – a right to an attorney in a civil matter for critical needs such as basic income protection, shelter and termination of parental rights.
That being said, McAuliffe acknowledges that the ideal won’t be achievable soon – and in the meantime the Commission will be exploring ways to make the system more accessible and understandable to litigants. Some initiatives already are under way – the Probate Court is hiring someone to serve as a “greeter” to help orient people when they show up at the courthouse.
The Commission also seeks to involve more members of the legal community in the effort. Duggan said one avenue being explored is using public-sector lawyers to provide pro bono help by volunteering at courthouses to provide basic orientation, not legal advice, to litigants. “We want to make sure that the goal is understood,” McAuliffe said. “Our efforts are not aimed at trying to replace lawyers. But, along the way, we have to find ways to provide some reliable guidance to people – what forms to fill out, what the process is – this is not advice as to what decisions to make. There is a world of difference between guidance and representation.”
Duggan added that information centers in courthouses that provide guidance to litigants will help some of them realize how complex a matter is, and encourage them to seek legal counsel. The concept of limited representation, or unbundling, will also be a focus for the Access to Justice Commission, Duggan and McAuliffe noted. “We have to find multiple ways to employ legal resources and increase efforts to connect people with legal help,” Duggan said.
Duggan said the 40-member Commission will next meet as a full group on May 31, but in the meantime, a number of subgroups are investigating initiatives in the following areas: pro bono services; funding of legal services; delivery of legal services; legal insurance for low-income people; non-lawyer representation; public awareness; self-help initiatives; and family law-related services.
Duggan added that New Hampshire’s Access to Justice Commission is following a blueprint underway in at least 26 other states to coordinate efforts to, in the words of the Jan. 12, 2007, order: “effectively move ideas to action.”