Chief justice helps find solutions for those unable to defend themselves

By Shawnna Stiver | Mar 25, 2016

JACKSONVILLE – A state chief justice is looking to find a solution for those unable to defend themselves in civil court cases, because of a so-called “legal services gap.”

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga says the federal funding for legal aid has declined since 2012 and has created a problem for working class people: they can’t afford to defend themselves in court.

As a solution, Labarga created the Florida Access to Civil Justice Commission in 2014 in order to bring to light the problem of people not having equal access to justice. Similar commissions exist in 38 other states.

“My goal is to increase legal services available to everyone in Florida, especially those who now fall in the legal services gap,” Labarga told the Florida Record. “This gap consists of people who earn too much to qualify for free legal assistance in civil cases like divorce, child custody and landlord disputes. But they earn too little to afford the fees normally charged by lawyers today.”

Helping people have equal access to civil rights has been his main goal as chief justice. Laborga says a lot of matters could easily be resolved for people if they simply had access to more resources and education.

The first project for the commission is to develop an online gateway portal where people can go online, answer a few questions, similar to how they would for an income tax filing program, and then be referred to resources available to help them. The idea is to give people access to people best able to help depending on their specific case or issue.

If the first project gets Supreme Court approval, commission members hope a pilot program could be available in Clay County very soon.

“My plan is to make the gateway portal into a permanent feature of Florida’s legal culture,” Labarga said. “I hope it will be one project that will continue to provide help to people and will be expanded and improved in the years ahead.”

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