Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Advocates Examine Ohio Supreme Court Task Force on Access to Justice Report

Lawyers must be at the forefront of efforts to ensure low- and moderate-income Ohioans’ legal needs are met, and innovations to the current system must be quickly adopted in the face of financial shortfalls, said lawyers, judges, and advocates for the poor.

“If not us, then who?” Who else is going to do it?’ said William Weisenberg, Ohio State Bar Association Senior Policy Adviser at Thursday’s OSBA Access to Justice Summit.

Weisenberg is a member of the Ohio Supreme Court’s Task Force on Access to Justice, which released its final report and recommendations earlier in April. At its state convention, the OSBA convened policy experts and advocates to analyze the report findings, offer other suggestions, and develop strategies to contribute to the effort.

After hearing opening comments from task force chair and former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Yvette McGee Brown, task force member Justice Judith L. French and others, the more than 100 summit participants broke into small groups facilitated by task force members to discuss the ideas.

“We need all of you – your ideas, your energy, your action if we are going to move forward,” Justice French told the crowd.

Attorney and author of 10 best-selling works, Scott Turow said the nation’s legal system has been “frozen in evolution” for decades and the poor and middle class have suffered from it. Turow devotes almost all of his Chicago law firm practice to pro bono work and challenged Ohio’s legal community to address the biggest challenges facing access to justice, starting with the notion that lawyers owe it to society to set aside time for free legal service to those who need it.

“We have to create a culture within the legal profession that this is not really voluntary, but an obligation to society as a whole,” he said about pro bono work.

With Ohio’s six legal aid societies suffering from a dramatic reduction in funding that has led to the elimination of 173 jobs in the past five years, the task force has suggested several ways to address the shortfall. One is a $50 “add on fee” for biennial Attorney Registration, which would bring the two-year registration cost to $400.

Turow suggested Ohio consider this or some other “tax on attorneys” where they would either pay the fee or work it off through providing pro bono services.

Judy Perry Martinez, American Bar Association Commissioner on the Future of Legal Services, said several states have been looking for reforms outside the legal profession as models for increasing legal resources for those in need. She pointed to programs similar to the medical profession’s use of physician assistants and nurse practitioners. Some states are allowing non-attorney licensed legal assistants to provide less costly legal services while under the supervision of a licensed attorney.

McGee Brown cautioned for limits on non-attorney legal assistance indicating Ohioans often need the full benefit of a lawyer’s legal expertise, especially in complicated matters such as retirement benefit allocations after a divorce.

Martinez said the ABA, which provided grant funds to Ohio to convene the task force, is looking for ways to supplement the system and not supplant lawyers. She said the system will progress if states find ways to make the “highest and best use” of a lawyer’s time and noted that for decades a lot of tasks taken in by lawyers are passed on to non-lawyers under their supervision.

She noted one of the most effective ways to address the issue is for lawyers to engage those in need rather than wait for people to contact them.

“We need to go to the people, and for the vast majority the Internet is their entry point to the legal system,” Martinez said.

Among the 11 recommendations in the report is the development of a statewide website that provides free and accurate legal information, including videos describing how to navigate the civil justice system, and standardized forms.

Other recommendations include:

  • Allocating general revenue funds for civil legal aid
  • Increasing fees charged to out-of-state attorneys who handle cases in Ohio on a pro hac vice basis and allocate a portion of those funds to civil legal aid organizations
  • Creating an Access to Justice Director position in the Supreme Court to coordinate programs and consider policy and rule changes

Justice French concluded the summit by informing the participants that their thoughts will be taken under advisement along with the recommendations from the task force.