Tigers, once again

Contributing Columnist

As the halfway point in a Florida summer rolled along it was once again time for the luncheon meeting of Tiger Bay in Sarasota.  It was hot enough as the suits gathered at Michaels on East for the renewed festivities.  The lawyers in the suits were the dominant crowd this Thursday as the day’s topic was  “Access to Justice…Is money the key to the Courthouse.”  Apropos, I thought, in view of my experiences related in this column a few short weeks ago.  The panel assembled by the Tigers was one to get the young lawyers’  attention;

Linda Harradine, Legal Aid Manasota

Judge Lee Hayworth 12th Judicial Circuit

John Patterson Livingston, Patterson et al

Larry Eger Public Defender and today’s moderator

The room was full, the conversation spirited as the crowd built early.

I got in the habit of attending these gatherings of the locally important when I was involved in LBK Town Government.  I found it important to keep up on the greater Sarasota scene.  I try to keep up now as a way to be a responsible reporter and commentator on that greater scene.

I usually pay close attention to the attendance of the Longboat Key “heavies” at these luncheons.  This once was a good indicator of present and future candidate interest.  It was important to be seen here.  I guess August is too soon to place this measure on electoral politics in our town.  Only Dave Brenner showed up this day; he did have Jeff Mayers, the LBKC&R General Manager in tow.

The newly appointed LBK Finance Director, Susan Smith was there with our IT Director,  Kathi Pletzki.

We hope to soon be able to report on and opine about personalities for next March’s election.  It’s never to soon to plan ahead.

Larry Eger, the Public Defender led things off as Moderator.  He notes that “Justice for All” is in the Pledge of Allegiance asking “is it really?”

He cites the Sixth Amendment and this case as the basis for representation in criminal cases.

Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963), is a landmark case in United States Supreme Court history. In it the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state courts are required under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to provide counsel in criminal cases to represent defendants who are unable to afford to pay their own attorneys. The case extended the identical requirement that had been explicitly imposed on federal courts under the Fifth Amendment and Sixth Amendment.    (Wikipedia)

Panel member, John Patterson, Sarasota attorney, spoke of access to justice in civil cases.  He related that funding for attorneys serving the indigent comes from the interest on trust accounts held by attorneys in the course of their practice, like deposit accounts in real estate closings.  This funding, now about $15 million annually in Florida is significantly down.

Linda Harradine of Legal Aid spoke of her clients need for representation, thus access to justice, in civil matters including divorce, foreclosures, etc.

Judge Hayworth said that these services work because of the contributions of attorneys within the community.  He noted that the oath for attorneys requires pro bono (done without compensation for the public good) work by all attorneys.  The Judge said that 5,700 hours were performed in Sarasota in a recent year.

Eger asks the panel, “Why do we need lawyers?”

Hayworth points to child abuse, drugies (his word), representation as guardians in many areas, foreclosures, where he says homeowners may be better served by engaging an attorney.  He calls this last one “Challenges to Bar and to Ethics.”

John Patterson here mentions Small Claims Court, saying that the results are about the same with or without attorneys.  He suggests raising the upper limit on these cases from $5,000 to maybe $10,000.  He adds that the vast percentage of U.S. population never has access to a lawyer.  Thinks mediation might help – use it more effectively on a pre-litigation basis.

Next question, “Who needs legal aid?”

Harradine replies the working poor, veterans seeking relief from homelessness, poor seeking divorce, special needs students.  She points to self-help forms which they provide assistance in completing,  Linda mentions literacy assistance – some people cannot read.  Says filing fees, which can be a barrier, are waived for the indigent.

John Patterson estimates they can try a case, in a one day trial for $10,000; maybe this cost goes up to $25,000.  He adds his bottom line, says “Access to justice is underfunded.”  He says that Governor Scott has vetoed legislation to fund these services; says he doesn’t know why.

Eger adds, “We want access to our courts.”  He calls it “Cash Register Justice!”

Hayworth says access is not funded here.  The Judge adds, in reply to a question, that he “doesn’t give a damn about elections of judges.

The panel is asked for their suggested solutions (always a good idea).

Patterson; Inform public of problem.  Says only reaching 20%+/- through legal aid.  John takes another ‘shot’ at the Governor over vetoes.

Hayworth; asks for understanding of constraints on court system and of course asks for financial support.

Harradine;  Education of Community is needed, a community problem.

Eger; legal aid provides pro bono services; asks for fund support to assist those in need in civil matters.

I thought it was a decent session, if a bit self-serving for the bar.  I might have been a bit harsh in my recent column’s almost blanket criticism of courts, of lawyers.  The panel today, posited a better picture of access to the law – access to justice.  I thank them for that.

I must recall a local big – time experience.  In a recent Longboat Key experience it cost IPOC (the recent deep pockets) over  $ 1 Million to achieve access to the courts – trial and appeals  –  to achieve Justice.  Maybe in that case money was the key to the courthouse.



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