Category Archives: Access to Justice

New book about Tarboro, worth a close look

Two weeks ago Brian Lampkin’s book came out. The Tarboro Three: Rape, Race, and Secrecy.

No time yet to read it, but MidLaw has given it a heavy skim. The publisher’s blurb sets it in line with Blood Done Sign My Name, Oxford’s “raw mix of memoir and history.” And no story of race, sex, and the legal system set in a small Southern town can be without its relationship to To Kill a Mockingbird.

A preliminary skim suggests that The Tarboro Three looks well written, fair minded, and after bigger game than simply recounting news stories or skewering villains. Lampkin, who wrote for the Daily Southerner for a time and is now in Greensboro, recaptures much of what set Tarboro apart from similar small places — its history, its legends, the people, and its racial culture — and displays them in the light of an awful event.

Looks like he saw complexity and decency as well as injustice and drama. His book is worth a close look.

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North Carolina lawyer John McMillan

Word has come of the death of North Carolina lawyer John B. McMillan.

John embodied the finest attributes and traditions of North Carolina lawyers. Among those was service to the profession and to the justice system. He combined humility and forcefulness with unique grace – proving indeed that humility and force can be combined gracefully.

Ten years ago, John wrote a very fine article, The Long Road to Founding the North Carolina State Bar. While the subject matter of that article is not directly relevant at this moment, it is a valuable, engaging piece and John’s voice is in it. I commented on the article some time back, and have thought of it since I learned that he has died.

A very, very fine lawyer and man.

Justice innovations — chucking 20th Century models out the window

In the clamor about innovation in the legal profession, a singular idea is striking a chord.

Real innovation, some are saying, will not consist of new ways to perform the chores of 20th Century lawyering. Instead, real innovation will focus on new ways to solve people’s problems. Maybe not every legal problem requires a lawyer. Maybe not every question implicates the Magna Carta.

Outside the justice business, the great new companies of the 21st Century — Amazon, Apple, Uber — are chucking 20th Century models out the window. They are reinventing what they do and getting things done cheaper and faster than ever before.

For law, it’s different.

Society has gotten way more complex. Demands for law-based outcomes have exploded —especially in low-dollar personal contexts like healthcare, housing, domestic affairs, veterans rights, social security, disaster recovery, and consumer financial issues. But legal outcomes continue to be delivered for the most part in the same old ways.

All this weighs most heavily on people without a lot of money. They are the ones with all the domestic and housing and veterans issues. 80% of the people who need to use the justice system can’t afford it. They can’t afford the lawyers. And the ones who can afford lawyers aren’t happy about that. Too often, they get expensive, slow, lawyer-centered solutions. “There is far too much law for those who can afford it and far too little for those who cannot.

Innovations are coming, but before now they have focussed mostly on how lawyers work, and not so much on customer experiences.

In North Carolina though, some intimations of change are appearing. George Hausen says that Legal Aid of North Carolina (LANC) is North Carolina’s “laboratory of innovation” for the justice system and he claims some victories. He points to

  • LANC-fostered medical-legal partnerships,
  • LANC’s eviction diversion program,
  • LANC’S call center, self-help clinics, and videos,
  • LANC’S foreclosure prevention programs, and
  • partnerships between LANC and North Carolina’s members of Congress to ensure delivery of veterans benefits.

LANC catches problems aborning and finds solutions that bypass the legal system. They take lawyers out of the picture.

LANC receives high volumes of requests for services in low-dollar kerfuffles. It has developed expertise in subject matters that not many private lawyers can match such as personal housing issues, foreclosure prevention, consumer issues, veterans benefits, healthcare, domestic violence, natural disasters. LANC’s perspectives on the system (high-volume, low-dollar) are unique. Its solutions are innovative.

Government support and private philanthropy (institutional and personal) for LANC is a good investment in justice system innovation. LANC needs a lot more support than it gets.

A storm blows your house down and you have to have a lawyer

N&O storm photo

Legal aid brings legal services to help with basic human needs of people who can’t afford lawyers.

Right now in Greensboro, Legal Aid of North Carolina is bringing disaster legal services to people hit by that tornado:

  • Assistance with appeals of FEMA and other benefits available to disaster survivors
  • Assistance with life, medical and property insurance claims
  • Help with home repair contracts and contractors
  • Replacement of wills and other important legal documents destroyed in the disaster
  • Assisting in consumer protection matters, remedies, and procedures
  • Counseling on mortgage-foreclosure problems
  • Counseling on landlord/tenant problems

Legal Aid of North Carolina, the North Carolina Bar Association, the American Bar Association and FEMA are bringing Disaster Legal Services for low-income tornado survivors in Greensboro. There is a hotline: 1-833-242-3549.

Far more than in the past, people need legal services to help with basic needs. It’s the system we have built. Disaster relief is a small department of the help that Legal Aid delivers to low wealth people.

There’s a lot more to say:

  • why legal assistance for everybody must be a key feature in the complex system we have built;
  • why needed services can’t be provided solely by volunteer pro bono assistance; and so,
  • why Legal Aid needs and merits both government and charitable resources.

For now, it’s good to know they’re on the job in Greensboro. That tornado was a disaster.

Richard Posner leaves bench to invest time in promoting access to justice

Thirty-five years ago, Ronald Reagan appointed Richard Posner to the Seventh Circuit United States Court of Appeals. At the time, Posner was a well-known conservative legal scholar, particularly identified with the “economic analysis of law.” He had written a book with that name.

Recently, he announced that he is leaving the bench. The New York Times says

The immediate reason [was that] he had become concerned with the plight of litigants who represented themselves in civil cases …. Their grievances were real, he said, but the legal system was treating them impatiently, dismissing their cases over technical matters.

“These were almost always people of poor education and often of quite low level of intelligence,” he said. “I gradually began to realize that this wasn’t right, what we were doing.”

Posner’s goal now is “to bring attention and aid to people too poor to afford lawyers.”

Posner’s concerns about access-to-justice place him in line with Antonin Scalia and Neil Gorsuch.

Antonin Scalia advocated for support of legal aid, fundamental to justice

United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia believed that the Legal Services Corporation (and, by extension, its client, Legal Aid of North Carolina) pursue equal justice, which is

the most fundamental of American ideals and they pursue equal justice in those areas of life most important to the lives of our citizens. The bulk of [their] cases, if you look at their annual report, involve domestic violence, real estate foreclosures and evictions, child custody, and denial of veterans’ benefits, unemployment compensation, and other governmental benefits. More than a third of the cases closed by [Legal Services] grantees in 2013 involved family law and more than a quarter of them housing.

Scalia asked, “Can there be justice if it is not equal, can there be a just society when some do not have justice?”

And he answered,

Equality, equal treatment is perhaps the most fundamental element of justice. . . . And in today’s law-ridden society, denial of access to professional legal assistance is denial of equal justice.”

It’s fair (more than fair, it’s necessary ) to explore alternative means of delivering equal justice: technology, delivery of services by others than licensed lawyers, new sources of funding. Indeed, it’s reasonable to hope that those who develop new alternatives will be able to do it on a for-profit basis and make lots of money. (The scale is surely there.)

But it’s not right to cut funds before alternatives are available.

Justice Scalia said:

Equality … is perhaps the most fundamental element of justice.

NC legal system — invest or divest?

In the past year the North Carolina legislature enacted cuts or reductions (or proposed to) in the following, which might be characterized as the infrastructure of North Carolina’s legal system.

The number of trial court judges (emergency judges)

               The number of appellate judges

The budget (therefore staff) of the Department of Justice

Funds (therefore staff) for Legal Aid of North Carolina (formerly taken from filing fees)

Funds for the UNC Law School

Dues (paid by lawyers) that fund the North Carolina State Bar.

In periods leading to this year, North Carolina’s population has grown and its economy has grown. Commerce has picked up and unemployment has dropped. The State has pursued a policy of promoting trade and business investment in North Carolina by companies outside the state and outside the United States.

Unless North Carolina’s legal system was overfunded in the past, the conclusion might be reached that more, not fewer, resources are needed to maintain what we’ve got.

The American justice system is credited as a core element of the economic and cultural success of the United States. Enforcement of obligations (commercial and other) —predictably, impartially, efficiently and effectively — is a big part of what made America great.

And, actually, we are at a time when improvements are needed.

Closing the loop on legal aid, not in a good way

The budget finally adopted by North Carolina’s General Assembly entirely eliminates funding for the State’s legal aid agencies ($1.7 million).

Until now, that amount had been generated by taking $1.50 from every court fee and distributing it to Legal Aid of North Carolina, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and Pisgah Legal Services, which provide legal services to poor people in North Carolina.

The point has been made here that as many as a third of North Carolina citizens qualify for legal aid. Sixty percent of Legal Aid of North Carolina’s clients earn less than $15,000 a year.

Those people, like the rest of us, must have access to the legal system, even if they can’t afford it, where

  • They are victims of domestic violence
  • They don’t get child support
  • They need to create guardianships for their grandchildren
  • They get ripped off by scammers of the elderly
  • They get fouled up applying for legislated benefits, including veterans benefits

and in a great range of other cases.

This is not a partisan issue.

21st Century society is complex. It cannot move without legal process. Everyone must use the system. And everybody needs access to legal services when they do.

Legal aid helps people get a hearing. It does not engage in politics. It does not pursue social change. And it does not target interest groups.

We all need the legal system to work at a minimal level for everybody who’s involved with it. Otherwise, over time bigger problems will develop.

For the General Assembly to stop a small portion of court fees from going to fund legal aid is bad for everyone, not just poor people.

The legislature made a mistake.

 

NC legislature proposes to eliminate access to civil justice funds — troubling

Word has come that the North Carolina House of Representatives’ Appropriations Committee has proposed a provision for the 2017 Budget entitled “Eliminate Access to Civil Justice Funds.” It would eliminate approximately $1.7 million in combined funding for Legal Aid of North Carolina, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont, and Pisgah Legal Services. Eliminating Access to Civil Justice Funds would cause drastic reductions in legal aid agencies’ services to those most in need, undermining equal access to justice for North Carolina citizens.

Take this provision together with the President’s proposed federal budget, which eliminates funding for the Legal Services Corporation, and access to the justice system will be cut off for a large number of North Carolina’s neediest people.

This includes access to legal services in cases of domestic violence, for disabled persons, for veterans, and in so many other cases.

Some issues in everyone’s lives, important issues, can only be resolved with access to the justice system. People who cannot afford legal assistance and seek to represent themselves, clog the courts. When important issues are not resolved, people are diverted from productive pursuits.

We already have a problem because so many cannot afford access to the system.

Reductions from current funding levels will make things worse.

“Who daddied this thing?” — NC’s system for oversight of legal services, where it came from, why, how & quo vadis?

Big questions are in play just now about the practice of law.  What is law practice? Who can do it? How should it be regulated?

Increasingly urgently, how can legal services be delivered to low wealth populations, to people who find themselves embroiled in legal processes about fundamental life issues and who cannot afford lawyers? How are they to resolve issues of child custody, divorce, spousal abuse, veterans rights and health care?

Across the country, lawyers essentially regulate themselves. The agencies that oversee legal services are composed of lawyers elected by lawyers. Some suggest that this creates built-in resistance to change.

Where did this system come from?

The system we have now was established in the 1930s. At the time, everyone generally agreed that persons who deliver legal services ought to have some verified level of knowledge about the law and should be subject to some oversight. A primary goal was to create an orderly system to facilitate national commerce. But the work required to set up and run the system looked so boring that nobody wanted to do it except the lawyers themselves.

In Rules for a Flat World: Why Humans Invented Law and How to Reinvent It for a Complex Global Economy, Gillian Hadfield writes:

No one … was much interested in thinking about such dry and arcane subjects as the uniformity of standards in commercial paper or the problems created by different standards for pleading a complaint. Nor did many care about the educational requirements for those who desire to earn a living from thinking about such things. No one other than lawyers, and elite lawyers at that, was eager to wade into these waters in the early twentieth century.

So, the American Bar Association and state bar associations took the lead. They established the system we have now: of bar examinations, law school accreditation, policing of unauthorized practice, and disciplinary standards.

The system they created has worked marvelously. The American justice system is a distinctive American resource that underpins a complex, creative economy and has fostered vast prosperity, quite apart from its core political function as mediator between government prerogatives and individual rights.

North Carolina was part and parcel of the national process. Former State Bar president, John McMillan has written a superb article that tells the story. The Long Road to Founding the North Carolina State Bar

After its leaders attended ABA meetings, the North Carolina Bar Association brought a proposal to the General Assembly that mirrored what was being done in other states. It would create the State Bar in which membership by lawyers and annual dues to operate the agency are mandatory. The State Bar would oversee legal services delivery. In words drawn from the Bar Association’s records of 1932 but that ring true today, John McMillan recounts that J.W. Pless Jr. warned that the Bar Association should not expect easy passage at the General Assembly. He said, “We don’t know what success we will have with the legislature. We have never had much.”

Pless was right. Lawyers in the General Assembly immediately suspected the Bar Association of elitism. Its proposal was “hotly contested,” “spirited,” and personal. John McMillan points to an exchange between a legislator and the spokesman for the Bar Association that was reported at the time by The Raleigh News and Observer:

“Who daddied this thing?” demanded the Senator.

“The North Carolina Bar Association at its meeting last year in Asheville,” replied Mr. Bailey.

“I’ll tell you that it passed by a very small majority and over protest,” asserted Senator Kirkpatrick.

“That is not true,” said Mr. Bailey.

“You aren’t calling me what I ain’t, are you?” queried the senator, his face turning crimson.

“I may call you what you are,” Mr. Bailey shot back.

The two were declared out of order.

Upon learning that lawyers would be required to pay State Bar dues of $4 a year, another legislator pronounced that “anything you want me to join that costs over $1, I don’t want it unless I can eat it or wear it.” Dues were cut to $3 a year.

Opponents suspected elitism from the start:

Mr. Grant … charged that the bill was concocted at the Asheville convention last summer and that the convention was attended only by railroad lawyers who rode there on passes while the poor lawyers were unable to stir from home.

But the bill passed and the State Bar was created.

Today, North Carolina, led by Chief Justice Mark Martin, is a national leader in scrutinizing the system and studying the future of legal services. Many of the old questions are back. Perhaps some of the old spirits are back, too.

A theme that’s surely back is the importance to North Carolina’s economy of keeping the State’s legal services delivery processes efficient and aligned with the national system.