JACKSONVILLE – A temporary state commission set up to help fill the "justice gap" will request to become a permanent fixture, as its members say the problem is bigger than a temporary solution can fix.
"'Justice for All' speaks to the core of who we are as Americans. Without access, there can be no justice," Dominic "Donny" MacKenzie, a partner with the Holland and Knight law firm and member of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, told the Florida Record. "The lack of access to justice erodes the stability of government, the peoples’ confidence in the justice system, the country’s economic security and the Rule of Law. It is a fundamental building block of our way of life and something we cannot and must not ignore."
The commission was set up in November 2014 to help guide low-income Floridians to options for free or low-cost legal help. Members met in Jacksonville recently to begin the process of transitioning from temporary to permanent status, with subcommittees reporting on issues such as access, technology and funding.
The commission is looking at program in Clay County as a model for a possible permanent solution. The program features a website where users can log on and answer a series of questions about what problems they have, and will then be guided to the proper legal help, whether that is attorneys with experience in those areas or even self-help documents that can solve the issue without a courtroom.
Regardless of the form it takes, MacKenzie says the commission must continue to do the work it is doing.
"Access to civil legal justice in Florida faces significant challenges given Florida’s size, rapid growth and diverse population," he said. "However, challenges present opportunities, and diversity is a natural resource which stimulates excellence. A permanent commission, drawing on Florida’s abundant and diverse resources and fueled by Florida’s brightest minds and selfless leaders will promote and foster significant and positive change for the betterment of our beloved state."
An upcoming development the commission is keeping an eye on that could lend a big help to the issue is several rule changes being proposed in the Florida legal system. The most significant is changing eligibility rules for attorneys that can work on pro-bono or assistant cases. Right now, that eligibility is quite limited, but MacKenzie says the rule changes would expand it a great deal.
"The proposed amendment would increase the number of eligible 'emeritus attorneys' from less than 50 currently to more than 3,000," MacKenzie said. "These attorneys would be permitted to provide free legal services in supervised situations. Those attorneys would generally include retired attorneys, retired judges and law professors."
The other rule change involves Florida's "cy pres" rule regarding unclaimed legal funds, such as class-action rewards. There is a proposal to designate the Florida Bar Foundation and other legal charities as priority recipients of those funds, which would provide much-needed financial assistance to those legal aid foundations.
The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice hopes to be around to advise on those and other involved issues, and will include their request to be made a permanent fixture in their final report to the state Supreme Court in the next few months.