When it comes to accessing legal services in Hawaii, the needy are at a disadvantage. This session, the Legislature took a step to help address the problem.

Senate Bill 1073 establishes three new surcharges for using Hawaii’s courts, the proceeds of which will be used to provide more legal services for the indigent.

Lawmakers passed the measure in May and sent it to Gov. Neil Abercrombie. A spokesperson for the governor told Civil Beat Abercrombie intends to sign the bill.

“(The bill) is going to give much needed, if not desperately needed funding for those who provide legal services for the very seriously underserved in our community,” said Avi Soifer, dean of the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. “It’s not going to solve (the problem), but it addresses it.”

In the past, legal service providers who worked with needy “had to go hat-in-hand to the Legislature and look for grants and aid, which was unpredictable,” Soifer said.

Currently, when a person initiates a court action — for example, by filing a lawsuit — they must pay a small fee, per chapter 607 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes.

Under SB 1073, the following additional fees will also apply:

  • Any person in a civil action in the circuit court who is required to pay an initial filing fee must pay an additional surcharge of $50 effective Jan. 1, 2012. The surcharge will increase to $65 beginning Jan. 1, 2014.
  • Any person in a civil action in the district court who is required to pay an initial filing fee must pay an additional surcharge of $25 effective Jan. 1, 2012. The surcharge increases to $35 beginning Jan. 1, 2014.
  • Any person in a civil action in the courts of appeal who is required to pay an initial filing fee also must pay an additional surcharge of $50 effective Jan. 1, 2012. The surcharge increases to $65 beginning Jan. 1, 2014.

The fees will go into a special fund, known as the “indigent legal assistance fund.” The administrative director of the courts will administer the fund.

The bill was strongly supported by the Hawaii Access to Justice Commission, established in 2008 to increase access to legal services for low-and moderate-income residents in Hawaii. Comprised of 22 members, five of whom are appointed
by the Chief Justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court, the commission was formed in response to a 2007 report that documented a disturbing trend in the state’s legal system. Among the report’s findings were:

  • 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 2,291 persons living below 125 percent of the federal poverty guideline.

The state judiciary was also behind SB 1073.

“The Judiciary has consistently expressed its belief that indigent persons have insufficient access to legal services,” Mark Santoki, a communications officer with the judiciary, wrote Civil Beat in an email. “We are confident that the court system will run more efficiently when more litigants are represented by competent counsel.”

In his 2011 State of the Judiciary Address, Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark E. Recktenwald said that the downturn in the economy has compounded legal access problems.

“There are many more people facing eviction, collections actions, foreclosure, loss of jobs or benefits, and related problems such as divorce or domestic violence,” Recktenwald said. “At the same time, state funding for legal service organizations has been sharply reduced.”

Access to Justice Conference Meets on Next Steps

New court fees are an important step, but advocates say more needs to be done.

On Friday, the commission is sponsoring the third annual “ACCESS TO JUSTICE: Pursuing a Noble and Necessary Purpose” conference to be held at the UH law school. The law school and the Hawaii Justice Foundation are both co-sponsors of the event, which will include workshops and speeches from legal experts.

“We’re going to have some heavy hitters from the judiciary and the Legislature and some very, I think, provocative and important discussions of current issues such as foreclosures and pro bono provision of services, the role of paralegals… issues about individual’s disabilities, and native Hawaiian rights,” Soifer said. “These are cutting edge issues and we’re going to have the experts addressing them.”

Last year’s conference included legislators like Rep. Marcus Oshiro, Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland and Rep. Blake Oshiro. Chief Justice Recktenwald will deliver the opening remarks at the 2011 event, which is open to the public. The conference is expected to attract more than 200 attendees.

You can see the itinerary for the conference here.