Small Biz Suffers From State Budget Cuts for Courts
By Peter S. Green, Bloomberg BusineeWeek
November 29, 2012
Real estate developer Darius Ross thought he had an open-and-shut case after he’d paid a plumber in Binghamton, N.Y., $25,000 for what he considered substandard work on an apartment complex. Instead, Ross says, it took 18 months and more than $10,000 in legal fees before a judge denied his request for a trial. “The court was very short-staffed,” says Ross, who believes an appeal would have consumed at least another year. With legal fees mounting and the renovated apartments sitting empty, “We just had to walk away from it.”
New York is one of 42 states that have reduced public funding for courts in the past three years, according to the National Center for State Courts (NCSC). State governments cut fiscal 2012 court budgets by a cumulative $600 million, or 5 percent, and 34 states left judicial vacancies unfilled and furloughed or laid off court workers.
California this year sliced $300 million from its $3.9 billion court budget. The state is planning a 15.2 percent cut for the coming year. South Carolina, which has the fewest judges per citizen of any state and nearly three times as many filings per judge, has slashed its state funding for courts by 40 percent over the past decade. In Alabama, state courts are closed on Fridays to save money, while New York canceled a program to use retired judges to hear cases and reduce a backlog.
The cutbacks are weighing disproportionately on businesses, as civil cases are forced to take a back seat to criminal cases, where the U.S. Constitution mandates a speedy trial. Small enterprises rely on the courts to adjudicate all manner of disputes, from broken contracts to broken marriages (both can have a paralyzing effect on business decisions and finances). “When the system is not adequately funded it slows down and people literally can’t get their day in court in a timely fashion,” says Bill Weisenberg, assistant executive director for public affairs of the Ohio State Bar Association. “We’re talking disputes that may involve $10,000 or less, and that’s a lot of money to a small businessman.”
Adding to the irritation, disputed funds in civil cases often end up in an escrow account, which neither side can touch until the case is settled. “I don’t have access to the money to expand my business, and you have to reserve against the possibility you might lose it,” says Roy Weinstein, managing director of the consulting firm Micronomics.
In Los Angeles, where courtrooms in 10 out of 46 courthouses are scheduled to close by June 30, a case that once took 15 months from filing to adjudication now can take five years, Weinstein says. A study conducted by his firm showed that from 2009 through 2013, delays in dispute resolution may cost the U.S. $52.2 billion in lost economic output.
There’s a vicious circle taking hold, Weinstein says. The reductions in court funding curb business productivity, which dampens tax revenue, leading state legislatures to make further cuts. “It becomes a death spiral, and that’s where we are now,” he says.
Dick Burdge, a Los Angeles attorney and president of the county bar association, says he’s been stuck for two years resolving a contract dispute between partners in a small clothing manufacturer. The courts are so backed up that the case is still stalled. It takes five months to get a court date for a discovery motion, something that used to take a few weeks. “It’s come to the point where you almost can’t come to the court if you have to have a motion decided before the trial takes place,” says Burdge.
It may take courts until 2020 before services return to their levels before the 2008 financial crisis, according to Dan Hall, vice president of court consulting services for the NCSC. Hall warns that the effects of the funding constraints may be felt long-term. Keep cutting and “you start hollowing out the judiciary,” he says. “We take it for granted that in this country we have the rule of law.”
The bottom line: A majority of U.S. states have reduced funding for courts, with cutbacks amounting to $600 million this year alone.
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Courthouse doing better than expected after cutback
by Cameron Steele, Anniston Star
Despite ongoing staff shortages and a lean budget, Calhoun County Courthouse workers have put a dent in paperwork backlogs in recent months, local court officials said.
The progress at the courthouse is largely the result of a new state mandate that has expanded paperless filing across Alabama, as well as recently enacted “stop-gap” financial measures, court officials said.
The changes were made to help deal with budget cuts and staff reductions that many feared would leave courthouses statewide buried in backed-up paperwork, slowing the wheels of justice in criminal and civil cases. Now, at least locally, it seems these and other measures have kept the worst predictions from coming true. But local officials say the fixes may not help forever.
“It takes a long time to see how things are going to go,” Circuit Clerk Ted Hooks said. “But I’m optimistic.”
First in the list of changes that have made the local courthouse more efficient: a new order from the state chief justice that requires all attorneys to file case documents online rather than in paper.
Outgoing Chief Justice Chuck Malone signed the electronic-filing order in September, necessitating the online submission of documents filed in all civil divisions of circuit and district courts and erasing the need for duplicate printed copies of those documents.
The order went into effect Oct. 1, but local attorneys and judges began adhering to it before that, court officials said.
As a result, the understaffed clerk’s offices at the Calhoun County Courthouse have had increasingly less paper to handle, and reduced delays in the processing of many civil cases, Hooks said. For example, he said, currently there is only a two-week delay in processing cases that include garnishments — civil matters in which a judge has ordered a defendant to pay the plaintiff a certain amount of money each time the defendant gets a paycheck.
As recently as March, as court officials struggled with a full-time staff slashed in half by state budget cuts, there had been a four-month delay in sending out those garnishment checks.
“It’s a convenience for the attorneys and for us,” deputy circuit clerk Kim McCarson said of the mandatory e-filing. “We don’t have to spend so much time filing paper, waiting on orders, et cetera.”
Local court officials said they couldn’t put a number on the amount of paperwork that has been cut since mandatory e-filing went to effect. But anecdotally, officials said, clerks have caught up on divorce filings — which used to have up to a 24-month processing delay — and on most of the paperwork generated in small claims court.
State Administrative Office of Courts officials estimate that clerks can file documents online at least 17 minutes faster than they do on paper. E-filing takes about three minutes per complaint, AOC spokesman Dean Hartzog said. Filing just one paper complaint can take as long as 20 minutes, he said.
Most judges at the courthouse and local lawyers in recent years were already getting into the habit e-filing through Alacourt.gov, McCarson said. The mandate, he said, has increased usage and “put everybody on the same page.”
Nearly 13,000 out of 18,000 state attorneys were already registered for on the Alafile e-filing system, Hartzog said.
However, the mandate has “allowed for greater e-filing capability,” he said.
Aundrea Mann, president of the Calhoun-Cleburne Bar Association, said many local attorneys had only just started e-filing documents as a result of the new mandate.
“I’ve been in my current job for two years; before I came to this position I did not use it,” said Mann, an attorney with Legal Services Alabama.
In addition to the paperless filing, Hooks said other “stop-gap” financial measures have helped to pay for temporary employees to work at the courthouse, filling in some of the holes left behind by the full-timers who were laid off in summer 2011.
Thirteen full-time workers lost their jobs in the wake of the $13.1 million budget deficit between fiscal 2011 and 2012, but Hooks was able to hire four part-timers to help out, drawing from a dwindling pot of money called the clerk’s fund.
That fund, which currently has a balance of $14,000 and is drawn mainly from copying fees at the courthouse, has been somewhat reinforced by new laws that appropriate money to the clerk’s offices from $15 to $45 fee increases on traffic tickets and bail bonds.
Those laws were enacted in June and August, and so far have raised roughly $37,000 for the cash-strapped clerk’s offices, Hooks said.
Last month, some $426 went to his office as a result of the $35 bail bonds fee increase.
“It hasn’t generated enough money yet that we could hire another employee,” Hooks said. “But I think that it will.”
Perhaps more importantly, court officials said, was a September referendum by which Alabama residents voted to transfer $437 million per year for three years from the Alabama Trust Fund to the state’s General Fund.
If that hadn’t passed, Hooks said, the state court system would likely have lost more jobs, pushing the Calhoun County Courthouse and others into deeper delays.
“That kept us from having further layoffs, kept us at status quo,” Hooks said. “And that was wonderful not to lay off any more people, because we’re already at half the people we really need.”
In the meantime, some attorneys recognized the mandatory e-filing may be more difficult for their colleagues who until now have not familiarized themselves with the online system.
“It complicates things for the lawyer who really has not embraced the digital era, because they have to learn a little bit about this thing called the Internet,” said Phillip McCallum, a Birmingham attorney and president of the state bar association. “But there are some training mechanisms that are put in place.”
Both the Administrative Office of Courts and the Alabama State Bar Association have offered to help attorneys learn how to use the Alacourt.gov system, McCallum said.
If Anniston defense lawyer Bill Broome didn’t have a secretary who filed his motions for him, he might have needed that kind of assistance in the wake of the new order.
Broome said he is not savvy with the e-filing technology, but still has filed his cases that way for years, thanks to his technologically capable employee.
“I couldn’t do it myself. I’m one of the older guys now; there’s got to be some folks out there that just don’t like the change, period,” Broome said.
Still, he said, e-filing is an important, time-saving tool, something that is necessary in light of the budget cuts and the staffing struggles that courthouses across the state have faced.
“It’s helpful for lawyers, too,” Broom said. “I don’t have to walk to the courthouse to file something; it saves postage. I don’t have to mail the DA a service copy of whatever I’m filing. Judges see something immediately when I file it.
“It saves time.”
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Hiring a private judge for your case in Alabama; few taking advantage of new law
By Kent Faulk, The Birmingham News
November 23, 2012
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama - In early September retired Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Gary Pate was contacted by attorneys on opposing sides in an on-going divorce case.
Pate said they wanted to hire him as a private judge to hear and then rule on their complicated case that had been filed in state court in 2010.
At first, Pate said, he didn't know what the two attorneys were talking about. "I guess my first thought was 'you're punkin' me,'" he said.
What the two lawyers were calling Pate about was a new Alabama law _ it went into effect July 1 _ in which both sides in a civil or domestic relations case can agree to hire a former or retired Alabama state court judge as a private judge to preside and rule over their case.
"I was surprised it had passed and I had not heard anything about it," Pate said.
This past week Pate presided over a trial in that divorce case. That case was held in a rented courtroom at the Birmingham School of Law.
Former Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge R. A. "Sonny" Ferguson says that case is only the second one he's heard about to be tried under the new "Private Judge" law that hasn't gotten much attention.
Ferguson, who pushed for the new law, tried the first case in August. It too was a divorce case.
Under the new law, former retired judges can apply to be on a private judge list maintained by the Alabama Center for Dispute Resolution, Ferguson said. The judges must have at least six years of experience on the bench and in the area of law for which they are being hired, he said.
As of today, there were 22 former judges from around Alabama on that list.
Only non-jury cases involving domestic relations, tort cases such as automobile accidents or property damage, and contract disputes can be handled by private judges under the new law, Ferguson said. The state of Alabama and utilities can't be parties in the cases.
While there have been questions about whether this is judge or forum shopping, Ferguson and others say it's not because both sides in the dispute must voluntarily agree to hire and split the costs for the private judge.
At any time after a case is filed in state court the two sides can ask the presiding circuit court judge in that county to appoint a private judge they want to hire.
Once a private judge is hired, both sides continue to file motions through the state court system and the private judge's rulings are also entered into the state court system, Ferguson said. At the end of the case if one party doesn't like the ruling they can appeal to state appeals courts, he said.
"It's treated as any other case," Ferguson said.
It's not an entirely new idea that a retired judge could be called in on a case. Ferguson noted that retired judges, including himself, are sometimes called upon by the state to preside over a case if other judges have had to recuse themselves for a reason.
Ferguson was a driving force to draft and get the bill, sponsored by Alabama Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, drafted. He served on a committee formed by former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Sue Bell Cobb.
"I was just tickled pink that I was able to get on the ground floor of something like that and move it forward," Ferguson said.
Ferguson said he sees a number of advantages to hiring private judges.
It doesn't cost the state any money. It can cut down on the backlog of cases to relieve congested dockets. It can be a cost saving in for all the parties when they don't have to prepare for a case each time it gets near trial than then is delayed. And it can get the case heard quicker.
"You don't have to wait a year-and-a-half to two years to get to trial," Ferguson said.
And, unlike an elected circuit court judge the private judge is devoted to the one case full-time with no distractions, Ferguson said.
"You're able to render a decision in a timely fashion without having to juggle 10 to 15 other orders you're trying to get out at the same time," Ferguson said. "I didn't see any down sides to it."
But one issue has been where to hold the trials.
Ferguson held his trial inside a training room at his law offices in downtown Birmingham. He said he is investigating using state courtrooms for future private judge cases, partly because of security concerns.
Alabama State Bar President Phillip W. McCallum said he thinks the private judges law could be good for litigants who have a case that has been going on for a long time and they want to see a resolution. It hopefully will help with overcrowded dockets, particularly when it removes complex cases off already overcrowded dockets.
The state bar, which typically doesn't take a position on legislation, was not involved in the private judge bill.
Birmingham lawyer Wendy Crew, who was on the committee that helped craft the bill and was one of the attorneys in that first case heard by Ferguson, said private judges are used in seven or eight states. She said that the Virgin Islands and United Kingdom have shown interested in Alabama's law.
"I think it's very progressive. ... I think it's a tremendous use of the assets," Crew said.
That first case heard by Ferguson was a divorce case out of Lee County. But with Ferguson and the lawyers for both sides being from Birmingham, they were able to hold the trial in Birmingham.
Ron Boyd, the lawyer on the other side of the divorce case from Crew, said having a private judge allows the attorneys and their clients know exactly when the trial would happen. "It's the worst time of their life and they want to get it done," he said.
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Birmingham lawyer Kira Fonteneau hired to lead Jefferson County's first public defender office
By Kent Faulk, The Birmingham News
November 28, 2012
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- Poor criminal defendants, who can't afford to hire a lawyer, have a new advocate.
Birmingham attorney Kira Fonteneau has been chosen to lead the newly created Jefferson County Public Defender Office, the director of Alabama's Indigent Defense Services announced today.
As the public defender, Fonteneau will lead a large team of as-yet-to-be-hired lawyers in representing poor criminal defendants charged in the Birmingham division of Jefferson County's court system and who otherwise can't afford an attorney. The Bessemer Cutoff division will continue to appoint local attorneys to represent indigent clients.
Fonteneau was selected by Ricky McKinney, director of Alabama's Indigent Defense Services, after her nomination last week by the Indigent Defense Advisory Board for the Birmingham division of Jefferson County.
"Kira is an outstanding attorney with a significant background in criminal law and specifically indigent defense," McKinney stated in an email response to questions from The Birmingham News. "She is an experienced administrator, having started and maintained a thriving law practice in Birmingham for several years as well as managed significant projects as a member of upper management with Wachovia Bank. We are very supportive of her selection and look forward to working with her."
Fonteneau said she was excited about her new job. She said she has a passion for making sure the rights of the accused are protected.
"I think there's a great opportunity to add some value to the community," Fonteneau said. "I'm just excited to be a part of that process."
A budget for the newly created public defender office hasn't been set yet, but the early numbers projected that as many as 35 lawyers could be hired as assistant public defenders for that office, Fonteneau said.
Presiding Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Scott Vowell, who chairs the Birmingham division indigent defense advisory board, said he hoped the new office would be open by this time next year. "It's going to be in essence like setting up a moderate size law firm," he said.
Vowell said he would expect the size of the public defender office to mirror the size of the Jefferson County District Attorneys Office. While some defendants do hire their own attorneys, 90 percent or more of the defendants are considered indigent and can't pay for their own lawyers, he said.
Vowell said they are trying to get Jefferson County to make room in the 2121 building, which is across the street from the criminal justice center, for the public defender office. The Legal Aid Society will continue to serve under contract to represent indigent defendants in family court.
Fonteneau, 36, has practiced law in Birmingham since graduating from the University of Georgia School of Law in 2005. She is married and has one child.
Fonteneau was born in Detroit, Mich., where she lived until she was 13 years old. After living a year in Hawaii, her parents moved the family to Chesapeake, Va., where she went to high school and college. She graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in 1998 from The University of Virginia.
Her mother worked in banking and her stepfather is a juvenile probation officer, Fonteneau said.
After college, Fonteneau didn't immediately get into law. It was only after working four years at Wachovia bank that she decided to go to law school.
Fonteneau said she likes the atmosphere of a courtroom. "I'm passionate. I'm certainly protective (of clients)," she said.
Fonteneau has practiced a variety of law, including criminal defense. Her professional activities have included participating in the 2009 Birmingham Bar Future Leaders Forum, the 2008 National Criminal Defense College, and working on the Birmingham Bar Association Executive Committee.
"Kira is well regarded within the legal community," Vowell said. "We feel she has a great zeal for this subject."
According to her on-line resume, Fonteneau also has spoken on topics including the Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
She also formerly served as a member of the indigent defense services advisory board.
It was that committee that voted in a blind vote to nominate Fonteneau for the public defender job.
"We had two good candidates," said Everett Wess, a local attorney on the indigent defense services advisory board.
Although he said he had some initial concerns about how a public defender office might work, "we're going to make sure it's successful," Wess said.
"We want to make sure that defendants have adequate representation as the 6th Amendment dictates," Wess said. He said the board will work to make sure the public defender office has the resources it needs.
A move to begin a public defender office took off under a 2011 Alabama indigent defense law that provides for an indigent defense advisory board in each circuit or each county _ made up of the presiding judge, local bar chairman and lawyers for three at-large positions. That board decides whether indigent defense be provided on a case-by-case appointment of local lawyers or through a public defender office.
Until now, judges have appointed local attorneys to defend indigent criminal defendants. The attorneys are paid by the state for their work.
Vowell said the board for the Birmingham Division looked at the different methods of providing lawyers for poor defendants. "Our expenses have been extremely high and the quality of the legal services is not what it should be in some cases," he said.
"The goal is to provide better legal services to the poor at a lesser cost to the taxpayers," Vowell said.
Board members visited other cities, including Nashville and Tuscaloosa, that had public defender offices, Vowell said. Birmingham was one of the few its size in the nation that did not have a public defender office, he said.
Kevin Butler, the public defender for the federal court system for the northern district of Alabama, has helped in advising the committee on how to set up a public defender office, Vowell said. The federal public defender office opened this past summer. Until then the federal district for northern Alabama was one of only a few in the nation that didn't have a public defender office.
Once the board decided on a public defender office for the Birmingham division, the board opened up applications for the job of public defender, the person who would oversee the staff of lawyers. That screening committee interviewed the 15 candidates who applied for the job and gave the advisory board the names of two applicants, which included Fonteneau, he said.
"They were both extremely well qualified," Vowell said. "It was a very, very, difficult decision."
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Headed to jail? Birmingham defense lawyer Tommy Spina has an app for that
By Kent Faulk, The Birmingham News
November 26, 2012
BIRMINGHAM -- Believe you're about to be handcuffed and hauled to jail and need a lawyer real quick?
Birmingham defense lawyer Tommy Spina has an app for that.
Spina last week began offering a free app for iPhones available through the iTunes store that allows users to quickly contact him and a friend or loved one if they've been arrested or think trouble is headed their way.
Downloading the app puts a caricature of Spina on your iPhone. When the app is opened, a screen with a large red button in the center appears with the phrase "Unlucky Strike? It Happens Press this Button to call Tommy Spina."
Pressing the button dials Spina's pager.
The pager voice message is also converted into a text message and email to Spina. Users also can press "setup" to save a friend or loved-one's cell phone number so when Spina is contacted, it sends a pre-written text to that friend or loved-one.
The pre-written text states: "Hey - I'm texting you automatically from Tommy Spina's app and I probably can't talk right now. I need your help _ please call Tommy at (pager number)"
The other person also gets a link to a Google Map of your location so they can figure out where you were in trouble.
"If they have the wherewithal ... In less than 10 seconds they can notify me and contact a friend," Spina said. "If nothing else, it would allow a loved one to know when and where things went bad."
"It was intended to be a quick, efficient way for a client, or potential client, to be able to reach me in a way that is culturally relevant," Spina said.
You don't have to have a prior relationship with Spina in order to get and use the app, Spina said.
Having a lawyer isn't usually the first thing you need to worry about if headed to jail.
Spina also has a "know your rights" tab at the bottom of his app where people can find a one paragraph statement he calls his "Reverse Miranda" rights. That statement begins: "My lawyer has told me not to talk to anyone about my case, to not answer questions..."
Another tab includes information about the types of bond usually available and his recommendation and contact number for a bond company.
Two other tabs at the bottom of the app include information about Spina, more contact information, and a link to his website.
So far the app is only available for the iPhone. But if it's successful, Spina says he may have one developed for the Droid.
An app isn't the first unusual or off-beat advertising avenue Spina has explored.
He sponsors the radio segment "Trash on the Table" on sports talk station WJOX. He's had a bobble-head of himself. And he's given out items including "keep your lips sealed" lip balm, "there's a light at the end of the tunnel" flashlights, and "don't get burned" matchsticks that was part of his Unlucky Strike ad campaign.
The idea for the app came up while talking to a local TV station executive, Spina said. "She suggested an app to be culturally relevant," he said.
At the TV executive's suggestion, Spina said he contacted Jay Brandrup, principal at Kinetic Communications in Birmingham, to develop the app.
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Lawyers, make room for nonlawyers
By Gillian Hadfield, Special to CNN
November 25, 2012
- Gillian Hadfield: Getting legal help is enormously expensive in the U.S.
- Hadfield: Lawyers, judges must change the way they regulate practice of law
- She says we need less expensive nonlawyers who can provide legal assistance
- Hadfield: Lower-cost alternative to full-fledged attorneys is the solution
Editor's note: Gillian Hadfield is the Richard L. and Antoinette Kirtland professor of law and economics at the University of Southern California.
(CNN) -- In our country, lawyers and judges regulate their own markets. The upshot is that getting legal help is enormously expensive and out of reach for the vast majority of Americans. Anyone faced with a contract dispute, family crisis, foreclosure or eviction must pay a lawyer with a JD degree to provide service one-on-one in the same way lawyers have done business for hundreds of years.
Increasingly, the only "persons" with access to legal help are "artificial persons" -- corporations, organizations and governments. No wonder that in a 2010 New York study, it was shown 95% of people in housing court are unrepresented. The same is true in consumer credit and child support cases; 44% of people in foreclosures are representing themselves—against a well-represented bank, no small number of whom engaged in robo-signing and sued people based on faulty information.
These numbers are just the tip of the iceberg. For every person who is unrepresented in court there are probably tens of thousands who didn't have any legal advice when they did the things that landed them in hot water in the first place. Who can afford $200 to $300 an hour to get advice on local small business regulations, the fine print in a mortgage document, or how not to make mistakes that will cost you in court when fighting over kids and money with your soon-to-be ex-spouse?
Some legal professionals have called for more public money for legal aid clinics and courts to provide free legal help and for lawyers to do more pro bono work. But the demand for ordinary legal help is simply too massive to meet with increased court funding, legal aid or pro bono work.
I believe there is no way to help ordinary people with their legal problems without fundamentally changing the way lawyers and judges regulate the practice of law.
What we need are more efficient ways of delivering legal help and less expensive nonlawyers who can provide legal assistance. Supreme court judges in every state have the authority to accomplish this with the stroke of a pen.
The root of the crisis of access to justice is the scale of the problem. Here's a little back-of-the-envelope arithmetic. Using data from surveys conducted by the ABA and state bar associations, I estimate that, at any given time, roughly half of all American households are dealing with about two legal problems each-- evictions, divorces, bankruptcies, denials of health care benefits, and so on.
Giving these American households just one hour of help from a lawyer to manage a maze of legal documents and court procedures would cost close to $20 billion.
This doesn't even consider the cost of what clients want most from lawyers -- advice about how to avoid legal problems. Including this service would add additional tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars.
That's why the only way to increase access to justice is to expand the group of people and organizations that can provide legal help beyond JD-trained and licensed lawyers.
Authorized nonlawyers and organizations could help ease our overburdened courts in many ways. Each year, 2.3 million New Yorkers, for example, represent themselves in state courts. These litigants do not want to be in court or to manage their problems alone, but have no other practical choice. They frequently labor under huge misunderstandings about legal procedures, requirements and forms. Oodles of judges and lawyers have complained about the delays and complications these misunderstandings create.
Imagine how much more efficient the court would be if the unrepresented could obtain low-cost legal assistance from people expert enough to help them navigate the process. Especially if those people were using the systems and protocols developed by a large-scale company, maybe even online.
It doesn't take high-level legal expertise to advise a person facing eviction for unpaid rent that if she wants to contend that her apartment has no heating and the ceiling is falling down, she should bring some photographs or other evidence to court to back up her claim. The same applies to people who need to understand what the arcane legal language in a court order or rule means.
There are many basic issues that could be handled by nonlawyers. Allowing nonlawyers to work for businesses that invest and specialize in giving this kind of help would supercharge the potential for reducing the cost of legal help.
The use of non-JD legal assistants and nonlawyer dominated businesses is not a venture into uncharted waters. The United Kingdom has a long history of allowing a wide variety of differently trained individuals and organizations provide legal assistance, and studies show that the practice works very well. In many cases, people are better served by a nonlawyer organization that specializes in a particular type of legal help—navigating housing or bankruptcy matters, for example—than they are by a solo practitioner with a general practice.
Furthermore, when people have access to lower-cost alternatives to full-fledged attorneys, they use these resources. In practical terms, that means that only 5% to 10% ignore their legal issues in the United Kingdom. Compare that to New York, where significant majorities of low-income households with legal problems—65% with housing problems, 59% with financial issues, 50% with health insurance problems—do nothing in response to their problems. But as often is the case, untreated problems lead to worse problems—and bigger headaches for our courts.
For too long, the legal profession has focused on legal aid, pro bono and charitable assistance as the solution to the crisis in access to justice. The approach is admirable, but futile.
Solving the problem requires lawyers—especially those on the bench who bear the ultimate responsibility for regulating the profession—to share the field with other, less-expensive, non-JD professionals and nonlawyer dominated organizations who can provide perfectly adequate legal help in many cases. America's legal profession is in dire need of reform; it's time for those in leadership positions to step up.
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Madison County Volunteer Lawyers honor attorneys who went 'above and beyond' for poor clients
Brian Lawson, The Huntsville Times
November 08, 2012
HUNTSVILLE, Alabama -- The Madison County Volunteer Lawyers Program, which provides free legal services to low-income residents, honored attorneys and law firms Wednesday for donating their time and legal skills.
Angela Rawls, the group's executive director, said 320 local attorneys provided free legal services to poor clients in the past year, assisting in civil, tax and finance and family law matters. She said Wednesday's luncheon, held at the Madison County Law Library, was aimed at recognizing "people who stood out in terms of their commitment, who gave above and beyond."
Among those recognized was Richard J.R. Raleigh Jr., who was given the President's Award. Raleigh was asked by the Alabama State Bar three years ago to come in and help increase local participation in the volunteer lawyer's program, Rawls said.
"When he came in, everything started to turn around," Rawls said.
Other award recipients included:
Firm of the Year Small: Adams & Walker
Firm of the Year Medium: Martinson & Beason
Firm of the Year Large: Bradley Arant Boult Cummings
Administrative Law Volunteer: Jeremiah Hodges
Bankruptcy Law Volunteer: Jeff Irby
Family Law Volunteer: Larry Marsili
Will/Estate & Guardianship Volunteer: Andrew Sieja
Volunteer Attorney of the Year: Robert Payne
MCVLP VIP of the Year: John Brinkley and Travis Jackson
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Judicial committee proposal in the works
By EJ Vernon, News-Aegis (Pell City)
November 15, 2012
Ashville — St. Clair County judicial leaders addressed the St. Clair County Commission Wednesday with a proposal to create a judicial committee to review and appoint officials to fill judicial vacancies in the county as they arise.
The judicial nominating committee would work to appoint individuals for vacancies for any circuit court judge, district court judge, district attorney, probate judge or circuit clerk in the county.
Current procedure grants the Alabama governor the authority to appoint individuals to judicial vacancies.
“We want to ensure the three nominations sent to the governor are qualified,” presiding St. Clair County Circuit Judge James Hill told the commission. “We are delighted with the appointments we have had, but the field has widened. We want to ensure quality control.”
Judge Hill told the commission the number of lawyers in the county has grown and that the goal of creating the nominating committee is to avoid waiting until after an appointment was made that might create difficulties for the county’s judicial system.
“I don’t think we should wait until a first-time error occurs,” Judge Hill said. “Judges render all kinds of decisions.”
If put in place, the nominating committee would be made up of five individuals: the presiding judge of the 30th Judicial Circuit, who would serve as the chairperson and a non-voting member of the committee except in the event of a tie vote. Other committee members would include Alabama State Bar Commission representative from the 30th Judicial District, Chairman of the St. Clair County Commission and two St. Clair County residents appointed by the St. Clair County Commission.
Commissioner Paul Manning expressed concern over creating a judicial nominating committee.
“I am not 100 percent sold on the platform of having a judicial committee.”
Manning advised judicial leaders and the rest of the commission to search and see if taking action on the matter was really necessary.
“[The process] has worked so well for us the way it is,” Manning said.
Judge Hill asked the commission to address the matter at their next work session and voted on at the next regular meeting so the proposal would be prepared for the Alabama legislative session in January.
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State Bar Seeking To Raise Money For 1 Million Meals For Needy
November 14, 2012
CHICAGO (CBS) – The Illinois State Bar Association is raising money for food banks around the state – aimed at helping hundreds of thousands of people as part of a campaign called “Lawyers Feeding Illinois.”
“Our goal is to collect enough food and funds for a million meals,” says Illinois State Bar Association President John Thies.
The food drive will run from February 18 through March 1 of next year. Thies says a lot of thought went into the dates for the food drive.
“The concern was that the holiday season leads to a lot of support of food banks around the state, but the period right after the holiday season can be lean,” Thies says.
Voters Defeat Measures to Change State Judicial-Selection Rules
By Ashby Jones, The Wall Street Journal
November 7, 2012
High-profile efforts to oust four sitting state supreme court justices failed on Tuesday. But so did a handful of less-publicized efforts around the country to change the way supreme court justices are selected.
The quick rundown:
Arizona: Arizona voters on Tuesday shot down a measure that would have changed the way judges throughout the state, including Supreme Court justices, are selected.
The current system, which applies to county Superior Courts with at least 250,000 residents as well as the state Court of Appeals and Supreme Court, uses nonpartisan commissions made up of five lawyers nominated by the State Bar of Arizona and 10 lay people. The commissions recruit and review candidates and forward the governor a slate of three nominees.
Under the ballot measure rejected Tuesday, rather than nominating lawyers for commissions, the State Bar would have appointed one and the governor would have appointed the other four without the State Bar’s input.
Missouri: Voters in Missouri rebuffed a proposed constitutional amendment, called Amendment 3, that would have changed the way the state’s top judges are selected by giving more appointment authority to the governor.
That the measure didn’t pass wasn’t entirely surprising; the measure’s sponsor, Better Courts for Missouri, dropped its support last month after a Missouri appeals court panel upheld a ballot summary that voters would see. The organization said that language was biased, and, in their opinion, made the measure unwinnable.
New Hampshire: A constitutional amendment in the Granite State that would have given the legislature greater input over how the state Supreme Court carries out its business failed to clear the two-thirds threshold. The latest tallies show the yays and nays over CACR 26 roughly deadlocked at 50% each.
Florida: Florida’s so-called Amendment 5, which would have let the Senate confirm supreme court justices appointed by the governor and made it easier for the Legislature to veto court rules, only received support from 37% of the voters.
According to the St. Augustine Record, much of the legal community was against what critics called a threat to the judiciary’s independence. Supporters contended it would make the courts more accountable.
Wills for Heroes clinic scheduled for Cleburne County
The Cleburne News
November 1, 2012
Area first responders protect residents on a daily basis, and now, the Calhoun - Cleburne County Bar Association, in conjunction with the Alabama State Bar Association wants to return the favor.
The first annual Wills for Heroes Program provides free legal documents, including wills, living wills, health care and financial powers of attorney for area first responders.
The Alabama State Bar Association will partner with the local bar association to provide volunteers and local attorneys for the event.
It is estimated that nearly 90 percent of first responders do not have wills in place, despite their inherently dangerous jobs. The Wills for Heros program originated after the events of September 11, 2001, where many first responders died without a will.
To qualify for this service, one must be a first responder in an emergency situation, such as police, fire, medic, EMT, or other person who puts their life on the line to protect others.
The event will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday November 9, 2012 in the library of the Cleburne County Public Administration and Safety Center at the Mountain Center, where the EMA is now located. The Center is located at 6751 Highway 78, Heflin, AL (Forte Drive).
The event is free, but space is limited so pre-registration is suggested. For information, to request a questionnaire or register, please call the office of Melody Brooks Walker at 256-240-9994. Questionnaires are also available for first responders at local law enforcement and fire stations.
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People & Places
October 25, 2012
Baldwin County Attorney Sam Crosby received the Judge Harold Albritton Pro Bono Leadership Award during the Alabama State Bar Swearing-In Ceremony for newly admitted Alabama attorneys held in Montgomery on Oct. 24. The ceremony was presided over by the Alabama Supreme Court. The Albritton Award honors lawyers whose outstanding leadership has significantly impacted pro bono legal services to the poor in Alabama.
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