In December 2014, the Delaware Supreme Court ordered creation of an independent, volunteer-run commission to take a deep look at barriers to justice in the First State.
Subcommittees studying civil justice presented their findings in a report released Monday. The report found the state’s legal aid organizations currently have only enough resources to serve one eighth of Delaware’s low-income population.
Rick Alexander chaired a subcommittee looking specifically at the delivery and funding of legal services for the poor.
“Imagine standing before a judge who will decide whether you retain custody of your child without a lawyer by your side," Alexander said. "Or a mother seeking protection from an abusive spouse without a lawyer.”
In Delaware, the majority of those facing these legal issues in Family Court represent themselves. In FY2014, First State litigants represented themselves in 79% of custody cases, 72% of divorce cases, 47% of guardianship cases, 75% of protection from abuse cases and 97% of visitation cases.
Another subcommittee looked specifically at those individuals and how to improve their access to legal information.
The committee's co-chair Lewis Lazarus says they hope to re-purpose legal libraries in the state’s county courthouses - historically reserved for judges and lawyers - into self help centers for those Delawareans who for financial reasons or otherwise decided to represent themselves.
“A lot of the concerns that they have can be addressed by themselves much more effectively, but only if we work together to make it possible," Lazarus said.
That committee is also working to streamline information - including electronic filing information - online.
Richard Forsten co-chaired a third subcommittee looking at how to assist small firms who represent clients of limited means, and promote pro bono work. Forsten says lack of time – or prioritized time – is the primary barrier keeping Delaware lawyers from providing pro bono services.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions," Forsten said. "And what I mean by that – I think everyone in this room recognizes the importance of pro bono. We all want to do it, we all mean to do it. And for whatever reason, we don’t do as much as we think we should. And collectively as a bar we don’t do enough period.”
The committee found family law and consumer law are areas with the greatest need for pro bono services from the Delaware State Bar Association.
The group plans to institute a pro bono leadership committee next year to address the family law representation needs and consumer law representation the following year. They also plans to launch statewide pro bono practice groups, and an annual pro bono summit.
The committees will continue to meet in order to implement its recommendations, although no timetable was provided Monday.