Lawyers offer free advice at courts
Nov 19, 2012 (The Honolulu Star-Advertiser - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
A civil courtroom can be an intimidating place for the average citizen, filled with arcane language and procedures, and stakes as serious as the custody of your child or the roof over your head.
"In the criminal justice system, everybody has a right to a lawyer, but not in the civil," said Intermediate Court of Appeals Judge Daniel Foley, chairman of Hawaii's Access to Justice Commission. "Even termination of your parental rights ... or being evicted from your home, you have no right to counsel."
With the backing of Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, courthouses across the state are setting aside space to help people who can't afford a lawyer prepare for their day in court. The rooms, known as Self-Help Centers or Access to Justice Rooms, are staffed by volunteer attorneys from the Legal Aid Society, the Hawaii State Bar Association and Volunteer Legal Services of Hawaii.
"We will be the first state in the Union to have a Self-Help Center in every courthouse," Foley predicted in a telephone interview. "We have a unified court system, with a very strong chief justice who has chosen to put that constitutional power behind greater access to justice for poor and low-income people."
The first Self-Help Center was launched at the Kauai Courthouse last fall, followed by one in Hilo in July and one in Wailuku last month. In August an Access to Justice Room opened in Honolulu District Court, and another at Family Court in Kapolei will have its grand opening Dec. 7 and has already begun operations. All have limited hours, dependent on volunteer staffing.
"In two short years we've gone from an idea being talked about by a couple of dozen people in a conference room at the Capitol to a network of centers from Hilo to Lihue providing assistance to people whose voices might not otherwise be heard," Recktenwald said late last month at the annual meeting of the Hawaii Justice Foundation. "We need to sustain that momentum."
He urged more lawyers to step up and donate their time because funding for civil legal assistance has declined in recent years while the need for help has grown.
Cases handled at the centers include divorce and custody battles, disputes between landlords and tenants, collection cases and efforts to escape abuse through temporary restraining orders. The attorneys provide legal information or short-term legal advice, not representation in the courtroom.
Some have decades of experience; others are fresh out of school. They receive training beforehand and can earn continuing legal education credits for their pro bono work.
"A lot of the attorneys who are coming over to help are partners at big firms," said Naomi Kusachi, an Americorps advocate with the Legal Aid Society who volunteers in the Access to Justice Room at Honolulu District Court.
"People are getting help from attorneys who usually charge $300, even $600 an hour. They're getting really good services. And it seems like the attorneys are excited about it, too."
Kalihi resident John Combs was at his wits' end with his landlord last week, and as a last resort turned to the Access to Justice Room at District Court. He said the guidance given him was invaluable in his efforts to ensure the apartment he is renting is fit for habitation.
"This is my first encounter with an attorney," Combs said. "I would be lost without her. All the questions I had were answered in a helpful way. ... After we pay our bills, we're flat broke every month. We can't afford to move."
Erin Hisano, a new attorney who specializes in labor and employment law at Marr Jones & Wang, said she was happy to volunteer.
"The need is out there," she said. "Anything we can do to help is a pleasure."
Across the country, the number of people whose incomes are so low that they would qualify for free legal aid -- if they could find it -- has grown 8.6 percent in the last two years, according to a recent report by the Pro Bono Task Force of the Legal Services Corp. One out of 5 Americans is now eligible, earning less than $28,813 for a family of four.
The Self-Help Centers have no income threshold.
"What we are really looking for is attorneys who will give direct legal services to low-income families and individuals," said Dew Kaneshiro, executive director of Volunteer Legal Services of Hawaii, a nonprofit group.
Attorney Derek Kobayashi, who pushed for Self-Help Centers in Hawaii after learning about them at a mainland conference, donates his time regularly.
"I feel it's really just the desk that separates me from the client," Kobayashi said. "When you hear their life story and their circumstances, I think quite easily the attorney could be on the other side."
In 2007 the Hawaii Supreme Court began requiring lawyers to report their pro bono hours, and the percentage of lawyers who reported donating their time jumped to 47 percent from 27 percent. The rate reached 50 percent in 2009 but dropped down to 43 percent last year, with 3,167 attorneys volunteering an average of 62 hours each.
A study of Access to Justice Rooms in some county courthouses in California found that they benefit everyone involved, not just the litigant, according to Foley.
"It made the courts far more efficient," Foley said. "You have so many people representing themselves in Family Court and District Court. If they come in and they don't know how to navigate the system, it becomes problematic for everyone involved, the parties, the judge."
"If you go to an Access to Justice Room, everything moves more quickly, less time is spent on their case and ironically they are more satisfied," Foley said. "It's less likely that they have to come back."
In Regular Claims Court, 93 percent of cases statewide have an uneven playing field, with just one side represented by an attorney. In Divorce Court, 28 percent of cases have legal counsel on one side but not on the other.
People who use the new centers in Hawaii give them high marks on surveys, and the effect is visible in their demeanor.
"When they first arrive, they are very tense, very worried," said Katie Lukela, law clerk for Senior Judge Mark Browning in Family Court. "Afterward, just from the body language, you can see that they're a lot more assured. There's a sense of relief."
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