Vote highlights access issue

by Kathleen Beitiks
Staff Writer

After wrestling with some issues of semantics, the Board of Governors agreed at its meeting last month in Los Angeles on a resolution commending the work of a committee directed to look into the accessibility of the justice system to all the state's residents.

The Access to Justice report was presented to the board as a work in progress and highlights the continuing crisis in legal services for the poor in California, whose numbers have increased while services have decreased.

The report was prepared by the Access to Justice Working Group, appointed by the bar in 1993 and chaired by Earl Johnson, a state appeals court justice in Los Angeles.

Without approving specific items in the report, the board's vote gave a stamp of approval to the underlying principle of the access issue.

"Every state bar in the country has rallied to the cause of appropriate legal services," said Bar President Jim Towery. He added that the state is in the forefront of legal services discussions because many California lawyers have taken the lead in addressing the funding crisis.

The report examines many aspects of the legal system, calling access to justice for poor Californians "at best an unfulfilled promise and at worst a cruel hoax."

According to the report's findings, at the top of the list is California's dismal record of providing legal aid for representation of the poor in civil cases. This is contrary to many other industrialized countries, where aid is available for both criminal and civil cases.

The committee came up with 13 recommendations, including the establishment of a state commission on access to justice, exploration of the feasibility of a statewide prepaid legal insurance plan, expansion of paraprofessional services and pro per assistance programs, and improving the effectiveness of small claims courts.

Fifteen options to increase funding for civil services were offered not as recommendations, but as possibilities to explore. Included in those options were the imposition of a tax on work performed by attorneys, private judges and other legal professionals, and increasing pro bono efforts and litigation-related fees.

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