Access to Justice; an issue that resonates from Hong Kong to Indiana and all points between

Maureen Leif, President and Founder of Grays Peak Strategies

I was fortunate enough to be able to present on the topic of collaboration at the Hague Convention in Hong Kong last November. I started off by asking an international crowd of attendees if they recognized the guy in the picture here on the left shaking hands. Do you recognize him? Probably not, but he a superstar to me, he is my dad. I grew up in a small town in Lafayette, IN and my dad was a judge for thirty years. At some point everyone met my dad and when we would go to the grocery store or movie theatre he would always have someone call him by name. When I was probably about twelve we ran into someone who said, “hey I know you, you are Judge Donat”. My dad of course smiled and said hello, but did not recall who he was. The man went on to say, “you heard my case Judge, and ruled against me”. Oh no, I thought this is going well. He followed up with a sincere smile and said, “but you heard my story and you listened and it was fair”. It was fair. Those words stuck have stuck with me through my legal career. Perception is reality right? If people feel that the system is fair, they buy into the system. The Judicial system is one of the three pillars of the entire democratic government. Without fairness, the judicial system fails. This idea of fairness impacts so many of the things we do in the courts. The term access to justice can be overused and the true meaning forgotten.

The number of self-represented litigants seems to only be increasing and how the legal system handles the number of self-represented while maintaining the belief that everyone has access to the justice system and it is a “Justice For All” world has been difficult. In my home state of Colorado, for example, we have Self-Represented Litigant Coordinators (Nickname Sherlocks) who are housed in the Courthouses across the State. Their function is to assist self-represented people in the legal process, directing them to the correct forms, how to file, what legal terms mean, assistance to finding resources, etc.

In other areas, Bar Associations or other organizations hold seminars or clinics on how to get a restraining order or file for divorce, modify child support, etc. Ensuring that the courthouses are handicap accessible, forms are in Spanish and that interpreters can be accessed are all ways that the judicial department can ensure that the judicial system is accessible to all, whether someone can afford an attorney or not.

In the child support system, ensuring that self-represented parents have an opportunity to be heard and that appropriate and equitable orders are entered are the cornerstone of fairness. There are many innovative and cost-effective programs that can be implemented that will increase the perception of fairness which leads to overall higher satisfaction rates on customer service. Programs that assist parents in finding resources to address parenting time (even though it may be outside of the core function of the child support agency) are one way that the agency can assist. In California[1] and other states, there are agreements between the Administrative Office of the Courts and the Child Support Offices or Bar Associations for positions called Family Law Facilitators. These professionals assist the parents with courtroom procedures and protocols and finding resources if needed. These types of programs help the public not fear the judicial process and also speeds up a court hearing when parties understand how the process will run. Another innovation that is very cost effective for courts and child support offices are having forms electronic or online. In Colorado we have a very developed list of resources, instructions and forms on our website that assist parties in filling out the appropriate forms prior to making a trip to the courthouse[2].  If a small town judge can bring access to justice alive, so can Child Support Services. Child Support can play a vital role in collaborating with the Judicial Department to ensure that the public perceives that they have access when needed to the Judicial process and that the process is fair.   If your agency would like more information or resources on collaboration and Access to Justice please Contact Us.

[1] Office of Child Support Access to Justice Innovations: http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/css/resource/access-to-justice-innovations 

 

[2] https://www.courts.state.co.us/Self_Help/Index.cfm