Elections matter and justice issues should count

Guest Columnist

As we approach the coming elections, the airwaves and our mailboxes are filled with negative advertising. We hear or see little of how we can come together on things that are truly meaningful. Among them is access to justice, particularly for lower income Floridians but for others as well.

It is a sad fact that our justice system is accessible primarily by those with enough money to endure the process. Merits, not money, should be the deciding factor when it comes to justice. But that is not the case today. Eighty percent of Floridians cannot afford a lawyer when faced with civil legal issues.

This is particularly disruptive to the close to three million Floridians living in poverty, about 14 percent of our population, and the one-in-six of our state’s children who are negatively impacted by poverty. Florida is one of only two states that do not have state funding for civil legal aid. The nation’s second most populous state, Texas, appropriates approximately $50 million for civil legal aid annually. New York, with the country’s fourth highest population, funds $100 million annually. Florida, America’s third most populous state, provides none. And, if Idaho passes legislation to help fund civil legal aid, Florida will be the only state in the nation that has decided that its less fortunate, including children, the elderly and veterans, do not merit assistance from the state when their lives are disrupted with civil legal issues, which relate mostly to family law and housing matters. This should be unacceptable to Floridians. Yet far too few candidates are discussing or expressing any concern over this sad state of affairs.

Funding civil legal aid is not a partisan issue. In fact, the Florida Access to Civil Legal Assistance Act (FACLA) was signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush (R) in 2002.   Every year thereafter until 2015, the Florida legislature voted to fund the act. However, after four consecutive gubernatorial line item vetoes by Governor Rick Scott beginning in 2011, the legislature gave up and stopped appropriating the funding. Similarly, efforts by some are made each year in Washington to defund the Legal Services Corporation, which was signed into law by President Nixon (R) and which provides limited federal funding to designated legal aid providers (seven in Florida).

While those facing a criminal charge are guaranteed legal counsel if they cannot afford representation, those with a civil legal issue must go it alone if they cannot afford a lawyer. Simply put, low-income and even middle-income people fall further and further behind when legal issues add up. A Colorado Center on Law and Policy study found that renters who lacked legal representation were evicted 68 percent of the time from private housing. Meanwhile, those who were represented by counsel were evicted only 6 percent of the time.  Eviction and foreclosure not only tear at the fabric of a family, but also lower neighborhood property values, reduce property tax rolls, and increase the crime rate in the affected neighborhood. Saving a family home often saves jobs that are lost from the disruption, not to speak of the negative impacts on the children involved.

Civil legal aid is good for families and is good for taxpayers. A 2016 study by The Resource for Great Programs found that civil legal assistance creates more than 2,200 jobs in Florida’s local communities. A study by Tax Watch found that every dollar spent on civil legal assistance produced $4.78 of positive economic impact. Meaningful access to justice is an essential element of the rule of law, and studies show overwhelmingly that the rule of law is the cornerstone of a strong and stable economy.

The absence of meaningful reform in our civil justice system and the lack of funding for legal aid severely limit the number of services that can be offered or the number of people that can be helped. Legal aid offices are overworked and underfunded.   There are only 410 attorneys in this state (that has a population that exceeds 20 million) working full time to represent indigent persons through legal aid offices. No meaningful solution to this can come without adequate funding.

I hope, when you cast your vote in November, you will consider these issues in your decision. Candidates who are willing to address real issues like these deserve your consideration. Candidates who seek to divide us by parroting negative sound bites and personal attacks do not.

We need to find ways to provide meaningful access to justice to all Floridians. Your vote can make a difference.

John Patterson is an attorney with Shutts & Bowen LLP. He is a former President of The Florida Bar Foundation, a 501(c)(3) public charity established in 1956 with a primary mission to provide greater access to justice through leadership and funding. He is also a member of the board of directors of Legal Aid of Manasota, Inc. The opinions expressed here are his and not those of any organization.

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1 Response for “Elections matter and justice issues should count”

  1. Steve Keller says:

    Mr. Patterson’s opinion piece is well written and comprehensive however Floridians who are evaluating the merits of Taxpayer funded Civil Legal aid as set forth in Mr. Patterson’s Oped should bear in mind that the preponderance of monies spent on Civil legal representation end up in the coffers of Law firms such as the one with which Mr. Patterson is employed and no doubt holds an equity interest. While the observations set forth by Mr. Patterson certainly have a level of validity in many cases, the conclusions drawn from these premises based on “studies” performed in many cases by groups backed by Legal interests, are often in the realm of probability and speculation rather than the arena of documented facts. What is factual is that the majority of the lobbying for publicly funded legal aid comes from Legal Associations and Attorney supported Legal Aid Societies across the country and it is also a fact that those lobbying efforts have been very successful in nearly all states except Florida – hence Mr. Patterson’s article.

    Mr. Patterson is right when he states that this should not be a partisan issue, however
    Civil Legal aid is a social justice program and while it certainly has a place in fair Community Governance, when it comes to deciding to what extent it is really needed and how much taxpayers should be asked to spend on these programs one should try to educate one’s self on where the lines are drawn between objective evaluations of public needs and self interest – hence my comments.

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