Bar News - August 17, 2016
Commission Working on Projects to Increase Access to Justice
By: Kristen Senz
The 24 initiatives aimed at increasing access to justice in New Hampshire include mandatory reporting of pro bono hours, simplifying court forms and creating specialized dockets.
The New Hampshire Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission is considering 24 potential initiatives designed to better facilitate access to justice and assist the tens of thousands of New Hampshire residents each year who attempt to navigate the state’s court system without a lawyer.
The commission in 2013 sponsored a study of the legal needs among New Hampshire’s low-income residents, which was funded by the NH Bar Foundation and conducted by the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and Social Sciences at Dartmouth College. Titled “The Justice Gap,” the study concluded that only an estimated 6 percent of New Hampshire’s low-income residents who could have benefited from civil legal services had received them in 2010.
That leaves more than 140,000 people per year in New Hampshire who are at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line and are likely to need legal help at some point during a given year, but are unable to access it. Then, there are thousands of other people in the state who earn more income than what qualifies under eligibility guidelines used by legal aid organizations, but still not enough to afford to hire a lawyer.
“I think there is wholehearted agreement that there’s a problem out there, and we need more than just the organizations devoted to civil access to justice for the poor to solve that problem,” said Richard Uchida, a past NH Bar Association president who co-chairs the Access to Justice Commission with US District Court Chief Judge Joseph Laplante.
It was against this backdrop that the 35-member Access to Justice Commission, which was first established by Supreme Court order in 2007, created a work plan about a year ago, with the goal of developing a list of possible projects that could begin to close the ever-widening gap. NH Circuit Court Chief Administrative Judge Edwin Kelly chaired the Steering Committee that coordinated the research of various groups of commission members in a number of key areas.
Scott Harris of McLane Middleton is president-elect of the NHBA and a member of the Access to Justice Commission.
“The Bar applauds the enormous amount of thought and hard work the Access to Justice Commission has committed to this important task,” Harris said recently. “We look forward to working collaboratively with the Court and other legal service providers to make New Hampshire a leader in providing real access to its courts to all members of our community.”
But just like many of the people it aims to assist, the Access to Justice Commission suffers from a lack of resources and, by agreement with the Judicial Branch, cannot approach the state or federal legislature for funding. Some members of the commission want to push forward with all of the proposed initiatives to find out which ones can best help to demystify the legal system and make justice more accessible to New Hampshire citizens. Other members, including those who work in organizations responsible for serving the legal needs of the poor, stress the importance of focusing limited financial and volunteer resources where they are most needed and can have the most impact.
At a meeting Aug. 9, the commission voted to pursue a strategic planning grant from the Justice for All Project of the Public Welfare Foundation, which could provide up to $100,000 to begin structuring the commission’s work in priority areas.
The conversations are ongoing and the documents that outline the initiatives and the concerns of some members are available for NH Bar members and the public to view. Uchida says anyone interested in accessing those documents should contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He said the information would be posted soon to the Access to Justice Commission website.
What follows is a list of the 24 proposed initiatives with brief descriptions. Further research, discussions and a revised timeline are expected in the coming months.
Enhanced Information Services: This project is designed to assure access to accurate information about cases and court processes by telephone, online and in-person to self-represented litigants and others involved in the justice system through the use of the Judicial Branch Information Center and links to civil legal aid organizations.
Pro Bono Reporting Requirement: This project proposes an amendment to the Rules of Professional Conduct that would require mandatory reporting by all members of the bar, including the judiciary and government lawyers, of Pro Bono service hours, with an expanded definition of what qualifies as service, while maintaining the aspirational goal of 30 hours per year for each member.
Consumer Debt Docket: This project is would establish a regularly scheduled small claims session devoted to consumer debt cases at which mediators and lawyers will be available to provide brief free consultations about debt, defenses, etc., to all defendants regardless of income, either in person or remotely.
Courthouse Legal Clinic (Consumer Debt Docket): This project seeks to provide defendants on the Consumer Debt Docket with an opportunity to learn about the small claim process, exempt income and assets, contractual defenses and other issues related to this case type and to provide an avenue to connect defendants to lawyers from full pay to pro bono.
Volunteer Attorney Toolbox (Consumer Debt Docket): The goal of this project is provide all volunteer attorneys with a complete set of forms, rules, pertinent statutes and applicable legal memoranda for use in the training and representation of defendants in consumer debt cases.
Bootcamp Training Model (Consumer Debt Docket): This project aims to offer training to lawyers who volunteer for the Consumer Debt Docket. The training will include court practice, e-court, laws related to exempt income and assets, and contractual defenses.
Consumer Debt Collection Process: Designed by Professor Jim Greiner of Harvard Law, this project provides information about the Judgement Collection process and seeks to encourage the participation of Judgement-Debtors in that process. It involves sending hearing date reminders and information about exempt income and assets to debtors.
Landlord/Tenant/Housing Docket: This initiative would create a single-purpose docket with regularly scheduled dates and times and a single judge in larger jurisdictions. Volunteer lawyers would provide advice and limited-scope representation on docket days. Courthouse clinics would be held on a regular schedule. Mediation and other ADR would be made available where possible. A new process would refer cases involving domestic violence protective orders or subsidized housing to LARC or NHLA.
Simplification of Existing Court Forms: This effort seeks to identify and review those court forms that are most frequently used by self-represented litigants and amend them, where necessary, by using language that is more easily read and understood, while at the same time adequately advising self-represented litigants (SRLs) of governing laws, rules and procedure.
Public Relations Campaign: The campaign would inform the bar and public about the high rates of SRLs in New Hampshire, communicate the need to provide assistance to SRLs and generate interest among Bar members to assist in providing increased access to justice.
Expanded ADR: This project would introduce a range of alternative means of dispute resolution available in all case types, free or at a reduced fee, including with court-involved differentiated case management. These will ultimately be tailored to case type.
Video and Webinar Presentations: There are currently a number of video tutorials available on various websites. The goal of this initiative is to catalogue and review them for accuracy, create links from one website to another or cross-post the videos and determine what other videos might be useful to create.
New Hampshire Legal Needs Survey: This project would entail surveying self-represented parties in live cases in the court system and those currently using the services of NHLA, LARC and Pro Bono to better understand how SRLs use the system, whether it is working for them, what needs to be changed at the court level and what needs to be added or changed by legal service providers to increase access.
Comprehensive Review of Current Available Services: A collaborative effort, this review would outline all services currently available to indigent parties, functionally indigent parties (those who do not meet federal poverty guidelines but truly cannot afford even a reduced-fee lawyer) and full-pay parties. A report would categorize and make publicly available the list of services, including eligibility requirements and contact information, as well as service descriptions, and identify other services that may be needed.
Connect Librarians/Courts/Other Resources: This project would provide online access links to local libraries to guide their customers, offer local workshops for librarians on the use of e-Court, provide “Lawyer in Library” informational sessions and support the “pro se law library” initiative.
Expand Collaborative Efforts: This project would involve working with legal aid organizations to post clear, helpful informational brochures at courthouses and, in specified cases, in courtrooms. Collaborators would meet regularly at policy level to discuss issues, increase communication, and develop new opportunities for collaboration.
Expanded Use of Video Technology: This is an effort to leverage the video technology available at each courthouse, to allow lawyers to appear in court to argue motions and present cases where feasible, to expand the geographic area that can be served by volunteer lawyers.
Tennessee Online Project: The NHBA’s Pro Bono Governing Board is working to implement for New Hampshire an electronic platform developed in Tennessee through which people can email legal questions that lawyers can volunteer to answer anonymously. This is done at the lawyer’s convenience from home or office. The Access to Justice Commission plans to monitor implementation by NHBA Pro Bono and offer assistance as requested.
Data Collection and Ongoing “Gap Analysis”: Coordinate the collection of data among the Judicial Branch and other stakeholders to focus on the gap between those needing service and those receiving service; close tracking of services provided through ATJ efforts.
Courthouse “Navigators”: A concept in use in other jurisdictions, this project involves volunteers (law students, community members, etc.) assisting people coming into court on the day of their hearings by providing information on the hearing itself, completion of forms, courtroom process, etc.
Expanded Use of Lawline: This project uses courthouses and TCC toll-free VOIP lines to provide a place from which a service like Lawline, the NHBA’s monthly public legal advice hotline, could be run on a regular basis.
Expanded Unbundled/Limited Scope Representation: This would be a concerted effort to educate and train lawyers, judges and court staff on limited representation through CLEs, advertising campaigns, Bar News articles and other media outlets. It also involves the development of a formal plan to increase use of unbundled/limited scope representation.
Early Resolution Project: Based on a project in Alaska, this initiative is intended to identify marital cases where parties are unrepresented and have relatively simple but intransigent issues obstructing resolution. Volunteer lawyers will be asked to represent each party for a time-specific period, e.g. 10 hours. A settlement judge would be assigned and mediators would be available (through state ADR fund) where possible on the day of an early resolution hearing.
Website Coordination: This project would review the websites of the Judicial Branch, NHBA, NHLA, and LARC to coordinate procedural information available to the public and develop new explanatory software and case-specific handbooks.
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