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TCL > October 2002 Issue > Improving Access to Justice Through Local Committees And a Statewide Commission

The Colorado Lawyer
October 2002
Vol. 31, No. 10 [Page  77]

© 2002 The Colorado Lawyer and Colorado Bar Association. All Rights Reserved.

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Departments
Access to Justice

Improving Access to Justice Through Local Committees And a Statewide Commission
by David Butler

This month’s article was written by David Butler, Chair of the Colorado Statewide Legal Services Planning Group—(303)295-8172, e-mail: dbutler@hollandhart.com.

Readers interested in contributing an article on legal services, pro bono, and access to justice topics should contact Kathleen Gebhardt at kjgebhardt@att.net.

Many people in Colorado work to improve access to justice for low-income and moderate-income persons. These include lawyers in private practice and on corporate staffs, judges, Colorado Legal Services lawyers, law school teachers, court personnel, and leaders and volunteers of community groups. The Colorado Bar Association ("CBA"), with the support of the Colorado Supreme Court, is now seeking to improve access to justice through a special initiative. This article describes briefly the creation of local Access to Justice Committees ("Committees") and a statewide Access to Justice Commission ("Commission").

A special conference will be held on October 25, 2002, to discuss what these new entities can and should accomplish. "Access to Justice 2002" will convene at the University of Denver College of Law; CLE credits will be given for attendance. The organizers hope to both convey and receive a great deal of useful information and ideas on that day. More on this conference will be published in the December 2002 issue in this space.

The Meaning of "Access to Justice"

In this country, equal justice under the law is a fundamental principle, and most people believe this is achievable in practice. Nevertheless, equal justice often is not achieved because of the dramatic discrepancy among people at different economic and educational levels to obtain access to the justice system.

What does "access to justice" actually mean? It is not just getting the "right" or the "just" answer or remedy for a legal problem. An answer that is "just" in the eyes of all the parties is seldom attainable, no matter how much money or effort is expended in trying to secure it. Moreover, it is not correct to give "access to justice" a political connotation by defining it as increasing the legal rights of low-income persons at the expense of those with higher incomes. There is no inherent inconsistency between conservative political views and recognition that everyone should have a fair opportunity to be heard.

"Access to justice" means the opportunity for everyone in our society to bring a legal problem to a person who can decide the issues and, if necessary, provide an appropriate remedy. Access to justice often begins with an adviser who can explain the legal right (including advice that no legal right exists), identify the person to whom the issue should be brought in the first instance, and serve as an advocate. The first decision-maker may be a judge, an employee of a company or government agency, or perhaps a specialist in alternative dispute resolution ("ADR"). If the conclusion is adverse, it may be subject to further scrutiny by a trial judge or appeals court, which again may reach an adverse conclusion. But—access has been provided.

The two most important components in improving access to justice in Colorado are pro bono services by lawyers and others, and services provided by Colorado Legal Services, which is funded in part by the Legal Services Corporation, a federal agency. However, these represent only part of the overall effort to provide access to justice. Everyone engaged in these efforts should cooperate and help one another. This is why a more formal structure should be helpful.

Committees and Commission
Origin and Structure

The idea of creating local Access to Justice Committees grew out of a recommendation made to the Colorado Supreme Court in 1998 by the Legal Services/Pro Bono Committee of the Judicial Advisory Council. The recommendation was for the creation of a pro bono committee in each Judicial District, which would include at least one district judge in its membership. This proposal had been modified to include consideration of other access to justice issues, and the title for each committee had been changed accordingly to "Access to Justice Committee."

The Commission idea began with a request made by the Legal Services Corporation in 1995 to the directors of its funded programs throughout the United States to form groups that would plan efforts to increase the scope and improve the efficiency of legal services to persons who cannot otherwise afford them. The groups would represent the organized bar, the judiciary, law schools, persons eligible to be clients, persons active in the provision of pro bono services, prospective or actual clients, and individuals or groups helping low-income persons obtain justice.

The group created in Colorado on an informal basis was called the Colorado Statewide Legal Services Planning Group ("Group"). The Group has succeeded in some initiatives, the most important of which was the consolidation of the different legal aid agencies in Colorado into Colorado Legal Services in 1999. Moreover, the Group worked cooperatively with other groups in obtaining appropriations ($426,000 in the past fiscal year) from the Colorado legislature, earmarked for assistance to victims of domestic abuse. However, the Group has no formal charter or official backing from the bar or bench. In all probability, its very existence is unknown to the majority of lawyers, judges, low-income clients, and legislators.

In 2001, the Group agreed to work toward implementing the expressed preference of the federal Legal Services Corporation that formal entities be created to represent the "state justice community" in each state. A growing number of states have established statewide entities for these purposes.

The Group determined that the time had come for Colorado to follow this course so that it would have a structure with broad representation and visibility that could maintain continuity. This decision led the Group to work with the officers of the CBA in developing the outline of a statewide Commission that would work with the pro bono Judicial District committees that had already been proposed. The Colorado Committees and Commission are now in the process of being established and are to be structured as described below.

Access to Justice Committees

Access to Justice Committees will be organized in each of Colorado’s twenty-two Judicial Districts and will not be limited to lawyers. They are intended to include and bring together interested persons already working or willing to work toward access to justice. These Committee members would include, for example, pro bono coordinators, judges, court personnel, paralegals, community volunteers, and members of the groups being assisted in obtaining access to justice. Although not committees of the CBA, the Committees will rely on CBA staff as a source of organizational and other assistance.

Local bar associations will be expected to take the lead in organizing the local Committees. Their primary focus will be increasing and coordinating pro bono services, but they are invited to consider other ways to improve access to justice and to share what they do and learn with other committees through a statewide commission or otherwise.

The local bar association(s) within each district will determine the size of the Committee, subject to a minimum of nine members; those in larger Judicial Districts may need more than nine members. Membership appointments will be made by coordination between the local bar and chief judge, or another volunteer district judge, in the district. Each Committee will include a local pro bono coordinator and a district court judge who has indicated a willingness to serve, and the Committee will determine its terms of office and select its own chairperson. Committees will meet no less than quarterly and report no less than annually to the Access to Justice Commission. If reports are requested, they will be made to the CBA and Colorado Supreme Court.

Access to Justice Commission

The purpose of the Access to Justice Commission will be to plan and coordinate the development of an efficient, adequately funded, comprehensive statewide system of delivery of high quality civil legal services to low-income and other persons who encounter barriers to access to justice. These legal services include those furnished by Colorado Legal Services, pro bono lawyers, and other legal services providers. Other services, for example, include education for pro se litigants; meeting the needs of non-English-speakers and such groups as Native Americans and immigrant workers; and development of a statewide intake, advice, and referral system.

The Commission will serve as a clearinghouse for information to and from the local Committees, but will not assume authority over their activities or the activities of any other group working to ensure access to justice. The Commission will not be a task force or committee of the CBA, although the CBA will appoint the majority of its members.

The Commission will comprise seventeen members, plus three additional members appointed respectively by the Governor, Speaker of the House of Representatives, and President of the Colorado Senate (if they agree to make such appointments). Four members will be appointed by the Colorado Supreme Court, and ten members by the CBA, drawing on individuals and groups already working toward access to justice in Colorado. Further, one member will be appointed by each of Colorado Legal Services, COLTAF, and the Legal Aid Foundation of Colorado. Members will serve staggered three-year terms, with approximately equal numbers of the initial members being assigned one-, two- and three-year terms. Appointing entities may reappoint members for additional terms. The Commission will select its own chairperson.

Staff assistance for the Commission will be provided by the CBA. The Commission also will work through committees composed of one or more Commission members, plus specialists in the matters being considered. For example, people with experience in ADR may consider ways to make ADR more broadly available to low-income people, or a group experienced in family law could work to improve forms and institutions for persons handling their own divorces or separations. The Commission will meet no less than quarterly and report no less than annually to the CBA and the Colorado Supreme Court. It also will report to the federal Legal Services Corporation when requested to do so.

Conclusion

Without substantially equal access to justice, society cannot have equal justice under the law. By creating and supporting entities that will work to improve access to justice, the legal profession is supporting ideals on which this nation has been built. Our hope and our goal is for the Access to Justice Committees and Commission to work together and with others to try to make access to justice a reality for more and more Colorado citizens.

© 2002 The Colorado Lawyer and Colorado Bar Association. All Rights Reserved. Material from The Colorado Lawyer provided via this World Wide Web server is protected by the copyright laws of the United States and may not be reproduced in any way or medium without permission. This material also is subject to the disclaimers at http://www.cobar.org/tcl/disclaimer.cfm?year=2002.


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