When former Tulsa Mayor Kathy Taylor, and her husband, Bill Lobeck, donated nearly $1 million to endow the Lobeck Taylor Community Advocacy Clinic (CAC) at the College of Law, they placed TU in a position of leadership on a legal issue that has become a crisis of national proportions. The issue begins with a fundamental pillar of our democratic society. Every person has a constitutional right to what is chiseled in stone on the front of the United States Supreme Court building: “Equal Justice Under Law.” But according to Anna Carpenter, assistant clinical professor of law and director of the CAC: “To receive equal justice under our nation’s laws, a person must have meaningful access to our justice system. Today, however, only about 20 percent of people who need legal assistance in civil cases actually receive it.”
While the Constitution provides for the right to counsel in a criminal case, even if the defendant cannot pay the legal fees, that right does not apply in a civil case. “As a result,” Carpenter explains, “millions of low-income Americans with legal problems that involve divorce, child custody and domestic violence must go to court without an attorney. Some may have to represent themselves. And sometimes, people simply never seek legal relief at all.” To bring more attention to this issue, the National Center for Access to Justice published its first Access to Justice Index in 2014. Based on extensive research on leading indicators, Oklahoma ranked 50th in the nation in providing adequate access to justice in civil cases.
In response, the State Supreme Court established the Oklahoma Access to Justice Commission to improve and expand the delivery of civil legal services. (Forty other states have similar access to justice commissions and initiatives.) The court appointed one of Tulsa’s leading attorneys, David Riggs (JD ’68), to lead the commission. Given the scope of the problem, he saw the need for in-depth research and impartial analysis to support the commission’s work, so he turned to the Lobeck Taylor Community Advocacy Clinic for help.
Carpenter asked three students — Bethany Jackson, Joe Lang, and Cybil Rajan — to conduct research on the complexities that low-income people encounter when they seek access to justice and to develop a set of strategic recommendations to help citizens make informed decisions when they have a legal problem. Carpenter supervised the students’ work, which gave them the kind of advanced legal experience that is not available in every law school. After more than 1,000 hours of collective work on the project, the students presented their 85-page report, A Roadmap for Reform: A Continuum of Interventions for Access to Justice in Oklahoma, to the commission in December 2015.
Riggs expressed his gratitude to the students and the legal clinic for their excellent work. “The research and report that these TU Law students produced was precisely what the commission needed to sharpen its focus and identify workable solutions to access to justice problems in Oklahoma,” he said.
To be sure, the students’ report is only the first chapter in a much larger story about access to justice in Oklahoma. It remains to be seen whether the report’s initial recommendations will be adopted and funded and whether every citizen in the state can then be assured of “Equal Justice Under Law.”
For more information about the NCAJ and its Access to Justice Index, visit ncforaj.org.