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The Work of the Oklahoma Access to Justice Commission

By M. David Riggs

 

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“Equal Justice Under Law.”

This inspiring phrase is displayed on our United States Supreme Court building and is a promise which runs throughout our Constitution and other documents and writings of our founders. Historically, our American system of justice has been viewed as a leading model of fairness and efficiency. With rare exceptions, our courts have been remarkably free of outside influence and corruption. Our founding fathers strove to create an independent judiciary and the principal of equal justice under law, but is it a promise we have kept?

Major barriers to truly equal civil justice have fallen, but only recently have those remaining barriers begun to get the attention they deserve. What are those remaining barriers? To start with, we must acknowledge the inherent unfairness of an adversarial system designed to find the truth where one side is represented by skilled legal counsel and the other is not. Today, as many as 70 percent of civil cases filed involve disputes where one side, sometimes both, cannot afford a lawyer. Most of these cases involve and affect basic human needs such as child welfare and child protection, home foreclosures, debt collection, wage garnishments, repossessions, predatory lending and so forth.

We lawyers have learned to navigate our courts, but for the uninitiated, courthouses often are frightening and confusing places, especially if your family or your home is at risk. People with disabilities such as vision impairment, hearing loss or cognitive challenges are disadvantaged trying to navigate the legal system – as are those who are not proficient in English. Our court system, with relatively few simple forms and unusually complicated procedures, is often not seen as “user friendly.” This is particularly acute in Oklahoma.

The National Center for Access to Justice is a nonpartisan law and policy organization created to develop a response to this growing problem. It created the Justice Index which ranks the various states with respect to access to justice. Oklahoma has not fared well in this Justice Index, ranking 50th when it was first created six years ago.

OKLAHOMA ACCESS TO JUSTICE COMMISSION
In response, our Oklahoma Supreme Court established the Oklahoma Access to Justice Commission (commission) on March 13, 2014. In its order establishing the commission, the court stated that due to “inadequate funding and uncoordinated efforts … many low-income Oklahomans are unable to receive full representation on civil legal matters.” The court said the commission was created “to serve as the umbrella agency for all efforts to expand access to justice in civil matters in Oklahoma.”

The court appointed seven voting members to the commission, provided for the attorney general to be an exofficio member, and for the governor, speaker of the House and president pro-tempore of the Senate each to appoint a nonvoting member of the commission.

The commission meets regularly and has undertaken several major initiatives to address the problems which caused Oklahoma to be ranked so poorly in access to justice.

Some of the more notable steps taken by the commission to improve access to justice in Oklahoma include: 1) implementing a statewide needs assessment survey to measure and better define the greatest needs of Oklahoma’s unrepresented litigants; 2) launching OklahomaFreeLegalAnswers.org, a statewide interactive website empowering volunteer lawyers to provide essential legal information to needy Oklahomans; 3) facilitating a change in court rules (District Court Rule 33) allowing lawyers to provide limited scope services to clients who would otherwise be unrepresented altogether; 4) preparing and securing adoption of licensed legal intern rule changes to facilitate greater participation in the program; 5) assisting in securing funding for certification and training of qualified courtroom interpreters; 6) facilitating our first Oklahoma Access to Justice Summit, an event which inspired and informed many Oklahoma lawyers; and 7) supporting and assisting Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma in its development of a single portal triage website for Oklahomans facing legal challenges.

Because the court has focused the attention of many of Oklahoma’s lawyers and judges on the access to justice challenge, and because of steps taken by the Access to Justice Commission to address the problem, the most recent Justice Index now ranks Oklahoma 42nd in the nation – but more work remains.

OKLAHOMA LAWYERS CAN HELP IMPROVE ACCESS TO JUSTICE
There are many ways you, as an Oklahoma lawyer, can help the commission in its work and help your fellow citizens.

  1. You can provide financial support. The newly created Access to Justice Foundation can receive tax-deductible financial contributions to improve access to justice. The commission has no funding sources other than voluntary contributions by people and organizations who share the commission’s commitment to equal justice. The commission’s website okaccesstojustice.org has a link to the foundation’s online donation page. All lawyers who work in our justice system should be willing to financially support the work of the commission. You may soon receive a letter from the Access to Justice Foundation asking for your financial support. Please do what you can individually and urge your firm to give priority to the access to justice cause in its charitable giving.
  2. You can donate your time by answering legal questions for needy Oklahomans. OklahomaFreeLegalAnswers.org provides a unique opportunity – Oklahoma lawyers can register with the site to anonymously answer simple legal questions from fellow Oklahomans. Just click the “Volunteer Attorney Registration” tab. It is a relatively simple way to donate your time on a limited basis. You decide which questions you want to answer – nothing is assigned to you. You provide these answers only when your schedule permits. The more volunteers we have, the more our volunteer time commitment is shared.
  3. Volunteer to serve on the Oklahoma Bar Association Access to Justice Committee. This committee often does research or legwork to assist the commission with its projects. It can also make recommendations to the OBA Board of Governors. In 2018, this committee was awarded the OBA Golden Gavel Award, which is presented to an OBA committee or section performing with a high degree of excellence.
  4. Share information. Not every lawyer you know will take the time to read this article. You can engage them to improve their awareness of our state’s challenges and access to justice ranking. The OBA Management Assistance Program will provide a speaker for a limited scope service CLE program for your county bar association.
  5. Act locally. A county bar association may be able to work with county officials on minor improvements that make a huge difference when a citizen enters an imposing courthouse for the first time and is confused about where to go. We are starting to experiment with volunteer courthouse navigators as one possible solution.
  6. Volunteer your services. Lawyers have a rich tradition of pro bono support representing the needy. If you do not know the best way to determine who is deserving, Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma will pre-screen individuals for you. The Oklahoma Lawyers for America’s Heroes Program is always looking for volunteers to assist those who have honorably served this country and cannot afford to hire an attorney. Sign up to volunteer at okbarheroes.org.

CONCLUSION
I am proud to be an Oklahoma lawyer. I know many of our lawyers already donate a lot of their time to assisting the underserved. Serving as the first chairman of the Oklahoma Access to Justice Commission has opened my eyes to the improvements that must be made before all of our citizens may truly have access to “Equal Justice Under Law.” Please join the effort we should all make to meet this challenge.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Riggs is the senior partner of Riggs, Abney, Neal, Turpen, Orbison & Lewis, which has offices in Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Denver. He was appointed to the Access to Justice Commission by the Supreme Court when it established the commission in 2014 and was chosen to serve as its first chair.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 90 pg. 7 (August 2019)