Law School hosts 2014 Access to Justice Conference

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Beverly Creamer, (808) 389-5736
Media Consultant, William S. Richardson School of Law
Posted: Jun 23, 2014

From left, Moses Haia, Nalani Fujimori Kaina, Avi Soifer, Robert LeClair and Mark Recktenwald.
From left, Moses Haia, Nalani Fujimori Kaina, Avi Soifer, Robert LeClair and Mark Recktenwald.

The U.S. has failed to provide access to justice in civil cases for 80 percent of the most vulnerable people in the country, according to the president of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the nation’s largest funder of legal aid services. Only 20 percent of the needs for legal assistance among American's poor and moderate-income people are being met, James J. Sandman told an audience of 280 at the William S. Richardson School of Law during an annual conference focused on improving access to legal assistance for the nation’s most needy.

This means that most American citizens often face civil court fights alone, without legal help at their side, Sandman told the gathering on Friday, June 20.  Attending the 2014 Access to Justice Conference were judges, attorneys, legal scholars, community activists and students.

Added Hawai‘i Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, “Every day our courts adjudicate civil cases that affect the most fundamental rights and interests that a person has – whether they will be able to participate in raising their children after a divorce, whether they can remain in their homes if they fall behind on their mortgage or rent payments, whether they will have access to essential government services, to name just a few.  And, every day, people come into our courts who have to represent themselves in these matters because they can’t afford legal counsel.”

This year the federal Legal Services Corporation provided $365 million nationally for civil legal assistance to low-income people – down from $420 million four years ago.  “Funding is at an all-time low,” Sandman said. “There’s been a 30 percent decrease from 2007 to today. The great paradox is that access to justice is about who we are as a nation.  With values like ours, how can it be that we let this situation occur?”

The annual Access to Justice Conference is sponsored by the Hawai‘i Access to Justice Commission in collaboration with the State Judiciary and the William S. Richardson School of Law on the UH Mānoa campus.

Said Law School Dean Avi Soifer, who chairs the Access to Justice committee that plans the conference each year, “This year’s gathering, the sixth that we have had at the Law School, again inspired, educated, and reenergized the lawyers and law students who attended and who are committed to serving our most vulnerable neighbors.”

LSC President Sandman said that 65 million people – 21 percent of the U.S. population – meet the income threshold to receive legal help from the country’s 799 legal aid offices. While they fall within poverty and low-income guidelines and are eligible for services in civil law matters, said Sandman, there is nothing that entitles them to a lawyer.

“Most Americans don’t know you can lose your home, have your children taken away, or be a victim of domestic violence, and yet you have no right to a lawyer in a civil case,” he said.

In Hawai‘i, the Legal Aid Society has seen an 18 percent cut in the funding it receives from LSC over the last two years, said Director Nalani Fujimori Kaina. Of the group’s $6.2 million budget, approximately $1 million comes from the LSC, with the remainder coming in from state grants-in-aid as well as private foundation grants.

Fujimori Kaina said the Legal Aid Society of Hawai‘i receives 16,000-18,000 calls for assistance every year, but only about 9,600-10,000 of those people are eligible for services. While not all receive the services of an attorney, the office endeavors to ensure they all get something, including advice on the agency’s hotline.

While Legal Aid and other small non-profit agencies that also serve this population continue to struggle for funding, there are now strong partnerships among service agencies that often step in to help each other, according to speakers at the conference. They are strengthening Hawai‘i’s safety net, and constantly looking for new ways to improve it.

Some of the most powerful advocates for increasing this help are judges themselves, said Sandman.  In particular, Sandman had high praise for the efforts to advance access to justice made by Hawaiʻi Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald. Among the initiatives discussed were self-help centers in courthouses throughout the state, as well as Ask-An-Attorney clinics on neighbor islands.

“We need to look at institutionalizing self-help centers,” said Recktenwald, pointing out that they’ve already been successful but need additional pro bono assistance from community attorneys. “In Hilo we had more folks come in than lawyers to serve them,” he said, adding that he hopes technology such as Skype can be used to remedy such issues.

Recktenwald lauded the Law School for taking a leadership role in access to justice efforts and the initiatives begun by law students to connect student loan repayment assistance to community service.

State Senator Suzanne Chun-Oakland, speaking on a panel with Senator Clayton Hee, noted that the need for pro bono assistance from community attorneys is critically important, often necessary to help with the staggering amount of paperwork in areas such as applications for the Rental Housing Trust Fund and Hawaiian Homelands.

Hawai‘i law students are already providing hundreds of hours of pro bono assistance to vulnerable clients as part of a graduation requirement to complete 60 pro bono hours that was initiated by law students themselves in the early 1990s. Generally they actually provide much more pro bono legal assistance than required.

While conference speakers spoke about the on-going needs in the community, they also pointed to many successes. Sandman pointed, in particular, to the nationwide trend of medical-legal partnerships that provide free legal services as part of medical care in high poverty areas. Hawai‘i’s own Medical-Legal Partnership for Children in Hawai‘i – founded five years ago by graduates of the Law School – has received a top national award for the outstanding legal service it provides to patients at the Kokua Kalihi Valley Community Health Center.

Chief Justice Recktenwald also spoke about his pairing Law School graduates who want to work with the current unmet need for legal services in the community. “With the leadership at the Law School, I think we can come up with a model for people who want to come back to the community and serve the community,” said Recktenwald.

(Full caption)  At the 2014 Access to Justice Conference, from left, are Moses Haia of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, Legal Aid Society of Hawaii Director Nalani Fujimori Kaina, Law School Dean Avi Soifer, Conference co-emcee Robert LeClair, and Hawaiʻi Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald.

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