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Community conversation examines civil access to justice

Faculty and students in The University of Tulsa College of Law hosted community leaders on campus earlier this month for a day of discussion on the topic of civil access to justice. Conservative estimates tell us that half of all American households will confront at least one civil justice problem this year. These problems include issues related to housing stability, income, care and custody of children and personal safety. Chief Michael Baker, director of Tulsa Fire Department Emergency Medical Services, discussed how Tulsa police and firefighters respond to many calls closely related to a resident’s lack of civil access to justice.

“Many of our calls are for health issues, he said. “We take all patients, but the court system often serves as the emergency rooms that sees the social ills of our society.”

Common causes of civil court hearings

Some residents find themselves in civil court, navigating cases that involve child custody, wage garnishment, consumer debt, eviction, foreclosure, divorce or a restraining order. In Tulsa, where 1,200 are filed every day, evictions are a common cause for civil court hearings. However, very few Oklahomans know their rights or understand how the process works.

“Seventy-five percent of civil cases involve at least one unrepresented person,” said Anna Carpenter, Associate Clinical Professor of Law and leading access to justice researcher. “Outside of family court, most of these cases involve a corporation or wealthy individual represented by counsel suing someone who is low-income or down on their luck and doesn’t have counsel.”

The reality of this obstacle for many Oklahomans in state court has a negative impact on income, housing, family, personal safety and environmental conditions, said 3L TU law student Leslie Briggs. “When someone has a civil justice problem, they have a civil legal need that touches the basic necessities of their life.”

The start of a community conversation

According to the National Center for Access to Justice, Oklahoma ranks near the bottom of the Justice Index with residents facing limited resources. For people facing a civil justice problem, options include hiring a private attorney at rates that can range from $150 to $500 per hour, obtaining a Legal Aid attorney or representing themselves.

“This is such a pain point for so many people in our community and it’s not something the social service sector is necessarily aware of,” said April Merrill (BA ’05, J.D. ’10), lead attorney for Medical-Legal Partnership Initiatives at Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, Inc. “This is the start of a real community conversation.”

Paying an attorney is problematic for the more than 600,000 Oklahomans living in poverty, and of those who earn up to 125 percent of federal poverty guidelines to qualify for Legal Aid services half are turned away because of limited funding.

“Most people have no way to get a lawyer, so they either ignore the problem or navigate the complexities of the civil justice system completely on their own,” Briggs said.

TU Law’s event invited social service providers, education leaders, mental health specialists, first responders, court representatives, attorneys and judges to engage in critical conversation on how to increase civil access to justice. Guest speaker Katherine Alteneder, executive director of the Self-Represented Litigation Network, leads a coalition of more than 2,600 justice system professionals with 32 different constituents such as librarians, community organizers, social workers and philanthropists. The group meets monthly to explore solutions that work for everyday people.

“I think our civil justice system will only achieve meaningful reform when we listen to the people and lead with their problems,” she said. “The law should belong to the people, and we shouldn’t need the intermediary of a lawyer to help them exercise their rights.”

Learning, innovation and collaboration in the TU College of Law

The event was well-received among community leaders who witness daily the damaging effects poor civil access to the legal system. But Carpenter states it’s just the beginning of a long, in-depth journey into identifying the root of the problem not only in Oklahoma but also across the country. As a scholar who studies civil access to justice and director Lobeck-Taylor Community Advocacy Clinic, the issue is one of her top priorities. Alteneder and Carpenter’s national expertise and Carpenter’s and passion for finding commonsense, user-oriented solutions through learning, innovation and collaboration across a community are setting the example for TU Law students who plan to focus on the issue and increase awareness about it in their own legal careers.

“Ninety-eight percent of cases occur in state court and yet lawyers are trained to practice in federal court,” said 3L Elizabeth Govig. “There’s such a dramatic need for guidance and support, and if I can make a drop in the bucket by proving it, that’s a huge win for everybody.”