“I’m not a lawyer. I couldn’t afford a lawyer. I didn’t know what to do.” These are the all-too-common words Chief Circuit Court Judge Ronald Ibarra hears from defendants explaining why they failed to respond to foreclosure notices.

Most often, Judge Ibarra says, these ignored notices lead to default summary judgments, and the borrowers lose their homes. In Hawaii, where foreclosures jumped 115 percent between April 2009 and April 2010, it’s a crisis that has resulted in a soaring need for legal aid.
Meanwhile, at the Center for Domestic Violence, advocate Antonette Demello has seen the caseload grow steadily over the last 15 years, fueled in part by the crystal meth epidemic. The center receives a couple hundred new clients each month, but turns away the majority of cases because there simply are not enough attorneys to shepherd them all. 

How to address Hawaii’s unmet legal needs was the topic of the Access to Justice Commission’s annual summit, held at the University of Hawaii’s William S. Richardson School of Law on June 25. The one-day conference, attended by more than 250 attorneys, judges, legal aid advocates, and law students, was organized by the Access to Justice Commission, a 22-person coalition formed in 2008 in response to the report “Achieving Access to Justice For Hawai’i’s People. Among the 2007 report’s findings: 

  • Only 1 in 5 low- and moderate-income Hawaii residents have their legal needs met.
  • Legal service providers are able to help only 1 in 3 of those who contact them for assistance.
  • The areas with the greatest unmet civil legal needs are housing (24 percent), family (23 percent), domestic violence (8 percent), and consumer (7 percent).
  • There is one legal service attorney for every 4,402 persons living below 200 percent of the federal poverty guideline.

Lack of Knowledge and Money Hurt Access

Commission chair Hawaii Supreme Court Associate Justice Simeon R. Acoba opened the summit by explaining that when access to justice is denied, justice is perceived as available only to those who can pay for it, and it “undermines a rule of law that is premised on the principle that all individuals stand equally before the law.” Acoba’s career began as a clerk to then-Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice William Richardson, who died on June 21.

Two of the greatest barriers to access are a lack of knowledge of legal rights and the inability to afford an attorney. Accordingly, promoting public legal awareness and encouraging pro bono work figured prominently at the conference.
Legislative funding of judiciary initiatives, specifically, was the topic of the first panel, comprised of Representative and House Finance Committee Chair Marcus Oshiro, Senator Suzanne Chun Oakland, and Representative Blake Oshiro. The legislators talked about the budget crunch, emphasizing that it made it extremely unlikely for the judiciary to receive more state funding. They also assessed the feasibility of alternative funding proposals like an increase in a filing fee surcharge that is deposited in the indigent legal assistance fund.

A second panel summarized the progress and recommendations of each of the commission’s nine advisory committees that were set up to examine various impacts on access—among them, education, self-representation, and maximizing use of available resources.

According to Acoba, the approximately 78 percent of legal needs that go unmet in Hawaii is not significantly more or less than the portion of underserved populations in other states. Hawaii, he says, is one of 30 or so states that have established proactive initiatives like the Access to Justice Commission to develop and implement solutions.

Across the board, lack of access is, at its core, a socioeconomic problem that requires examination of what one participant called “the elephant in the room”—that is, the broader issue of poverty. 
“People who are poor don’t have just a legal problem,” said mediation expert and former trial lawyer Charles Hurd, referring to the compounding social issues that reside just beneath the surface of low-income cases. 

“For a lot of practitioners, there’s a sense of unease,” added civil litigator and champion of pro bono Derek Kobayashi, referring to the difficulties attorneys confront trying to relate to disadvantaged clients—a cultural gap, a language gap, a knowledge gap, a technology gap, or all of the above.

Low-income Casework Can be Unfamiliar

Another conferee mentioned that high-powered lawyers might be unfamiliar with low-income casework, pointing out “the poor don’t have a lot of need for help in corporate mergers.” 

“As unbelievable as it is to some of us, not everyone knows where the corner of King and Bishop is,” Kobayashi continued. Uninitiated pro bono lawyers often have unrealistic expectations of client preparedness, he said, recounting a story about one of his clients who showed up to court in steel-toed rubber boots, shorts and a tank top—not the “uniform” Kobayashi had expected. (After apologizing for the client’s inappropriate court attire, the judge, incidentally, told the lawyer, “Never be ashamed of your client showing up to court in his daily work attire.”)

During afternoon workshops, conference attendees reviewed initiatives to enhance civil justice, including the benefits of foreclosure mediation (currently being studied in a pilot project in Hilo), expanding the roles of paralegals, and urging Hawaii attorneys to increase their pro bono contributions. Moya Gray, executive director of Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii, suggested that there’s also a crucial opportunity to get law students involved “when their dreams of changing the world are fresh.”

Circuit Court Judge Michael Town, who also served as a clerk under Chief Justice Richardson, delivered the closing remarks. Town invoked ancient wisdom from Leviticus and Themis (the Greek goddess of justice, whose counterpart is Nemesis), underscoring the age-old mandate to serve society’s disenfranchised. He also shared specific examples from Hawaiian history that reveal a cultural sensibility toward open access.

Most poignantly, he talked about the enduring philosophy of his own mentor, Justice Richardson, who always reminded him to “take care of the people in the waiting room.” It’s the people in that literal and figurative place, Judge Town explained, who need the most support and guidance. He concluded by urging the audience to continue the noble pursuit of serving “the least, the lost, and the left out.”

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