After commissioning a study on giving poor and middle-class people better access to the legal system in non-criminal cases, Florida Chief Justice Jorge Labarga said Wednesday that he plans to keep pushing for state money to help make that access a reality.
Labarga has appointed a 27-member study panel to make recommendations in a final report that's due in 2016. The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, whose members include judges, lawyers, legal aid providers and business people, held its first meeting Jan. 16.
Speaking to news media representatives at the annual pre-session legislative meeting sponsored by The Associated Press, Labarga recalled there was nothing sadder during his trial court days than seeing an anguished family needlessly losing its home simply because it could not afford a lawyer.
"You look at one side of the courtroom and there's the bank, the bank's lawyer, very well dressed, very polished, very competent and with a briefcase full of papers," Labarga told
"On the other side you see the homeowners whose whole world is about to fall apart. They're working hard, two kids, a dog and all of a sudden their home is about to be taken away from them."
"A reasonably competent lawyer could have done some good for them, "Labarga said. "I found that to be very sad."
While indigent criminal defendants are entitled to legal representation by a public defender or court-appointed lawyer, civil litigants have no similar right.
Legal aid groups may help poor people in some cases. Those in the middle-class make too much money to qualify but often not enough to afford a lawyer, Labarga said. That's known as a "legal service gap."
Labarga said he recently drove home the point to a group of young lawyers by telling them: "If you find yourself in a legal bind you probably couldn't afford yourself."
The Legislature in recent years has appropriated state dollars for such legal services but Gov. Rick Scott has vetoed the funding, including $2 million last year.
While the commission is looking at other options such as funding from private sources, Labarga said he'll keep pushing for state money as well.
"The commission's not giving up on anything," said Labarga, who chairs the panel. "I'm going to lock them in a room along with me and we're not going to come out until we get some solutions, and we're going to present those to those in charge and do our best to have them see the light."
Scott also did not include any of the 35 new judges the high court has requested in the proposed state budget he released Wednesday. The chief justice said Scott's proposal isn't the final word as the Legislature could include the judgeships when it passes a new budget. Scott, though, could then veto them.
Labarga also discussed an order he issued last month reminding Florida judges of their ethical responsibilities including a requirement to report misconduct by colleagues.
"You put that robe on and things happen to people. I want to make sure we keep it on the up and up," Labarga said.
He said the order wasn't aimed at any particular judicial circuit or the result of any particular incident but the result of his belief that judges from time to time need to be reminded they need to work a full day, rule properly and treat people with respect.