A task force charged with improving access to legal assistance to the state’s poorer residents has come up with a litany of recommendations to address the problem – and some suggestions on how to pay for their initiatives.
In the judicial system low-income residents who are accused of committing a crime are able to receive the assistance of a public defender, but if a poor resident is unable to get an attorney to take their civil matter on a contingency fee, then they are generally unable to pursue their claims. Consumer actions, foreclosures, restraining orders, immigration, child custody cases, and appeals for essential government services or education are all considered civil matters.
The Task Force To Improve Access to Legal Counsel in Civil Matters found that “many Connecticut residents cannot afford the legal assistance they need to protect essential human needs or face other barriers to accessing available legal services.”
The four flagship legal services offices turn away thousands of income-eligible residents seeking representation, according to the task force report, because those offices are constrained by their own finances or those seeking assistance have incomes slightly above what’s necessary to secure the services.
“It costs the state and its people millions of taxpayer dollars to address the injustices that follow from lack of access to civil legal assistance,” the report states. “That cost, which we pay in fiscal burdens as well as diminished social health, outweighs the cost of providing legal help needed to meet essential human needs.”
The task force, which was made up of judges, lawyers, state politicians, educators, law enforcement officials, those who work in support services departments, among others, recommended the following:
• Establish a statutory right to civil counsel in three crucial areas where the fiscal and social cost of likely injustice significantly outweighs the fiscal cost of civil counsel: a. Restraining orders under General Statutes; b. Child custody and detained removal (deportation) proceedings; c. Defense of residential evictions;
• Increase state funding appropriations for civil legal services through the organization designated by the Judicial Branch pursuant to General Statutes;
• Enact fee-shifting statutes in foreclosure, eviction, and debt collection actions, regardless of whether the underlying consumer contract or lease contains an attorney’s fee provision;
• Enact a statute to authorize the Office of the Attorney General to redirect a portion of funds recovered in penalties and fines by the Office of the Attorney General to legal services providers in accordance with General Statutes;
• Enact a statute directing state agencies to reduce the impact of bureaucracies and administrative systems on the people of the state, by: a. utilizing technology, including mobile technology, to make their processes easier, more efficient and more convenient for individuals; b. evaluating the readability of their communications, and to use plain language on websites, guides, and other public notices; and c. utilizing virtual systems to improve customer service and address questions more efficiently.
In 2016, the General Assembly significantly cut the Judicial Branch’s budget, the task force report continued, which forced the branch to cut costs by closing courthouses and significantly reducing court personnel. “These cuts have tremendous consequences for individuals and families,” said the task force report.
Accordingly, the “task force recommends against any further cuts to the branch’s budget as it will result in reducing access to justice, which runs directly counter to the very purpose for this task force. Prior studies and reports, within the state and without, have proposed numerous thoughtful and nuanced recommendations, but they have not resulted in sufficient change.
Lawmakers are staring down another $1.5 billion budget deficit over the next two fiscal years, which will make sparing any branch of government difficult.
“Acknowledging that the state confronts significant short-term resource constraints and that there is no single solution for the lack of sufficient counsel for poor and middle-income residents, we have attempted to identify bold, structural reforms, no matter how aspirational, as well as incremental systems modifications that we believe are achievable as early as the 2017 legislative session,” the report states.
The Connecticut Bar Association was supportive of the task force’s recommendations.
“The recommendations offer a series of steps that can be taken immediately to help civil litigants most at risk of being denied adequate legal assistance,” CBA President Monte Frank said. “The focus on restraining orders, child custody and evictions targets the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
“The task force responsibly addresses the added societal cost of offering these additional legal services with a series of funding recommendations and by laying out a multi-year strategy for wider implementation,” continued Frank.