ABA President - The Economy, Judicial Vacancies Have Profound Impact On Access To Justice

Monday, August 30, 2010 - 01:00

Increases in the number of foreclosures, divorces and consumer disputes are putting a tremendous strain on state courts in these tough economic times, according to a survey conducted by the American Bar Association.

In a news conference in July at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, ABA President Carolyn Lamm cited the preliminary results of a Coalition for Justice survey of approximately 1,000 judges, which found that the economy is having a "profound effect" on the access to justice for both low- and middle-income families across the country who cannot afford to retain lawyers.

"Sixty percent [of state trial judges] said that fewer people were being represented by lawyers," said Lamm, noting that "62 percent said there was a significant (negative) impact for parties not represented by counsel."

Ms. Lamm applauded creative solutions developed by the ABA as well as state and local bars, citing California for requiring civil legal aid financed by court fees when basic human rights are at issue. She praised the DC Bar for setting up bilingual kiosks with touch screens that provide forms and self-help information.

Ms. Lamm also pointed to judicial vacancies as exacerbating the problem of access to justice. "Right now we've got about a hundred vacancies, with an additional 20 judges giving notice that they'll be resigning over the next few years," said Lamm. "Quite simply, our judiciary can't function at an adequate pace to both administer justice and provide citizens access to justice without sufficient judges."

In defending the ABA friend-of-the-court brief urging the federal district court in Arizona to bar enforcement of the state's recently enacted immigration law, Ms. Lamm reiterated ABA policy. "I don't think anyone disputes positions on illegal immigration," said Lamm, emphasizing that the application of the law would make it unconstitutional both for citizens and non-citizens. "Because the way the law is written, what's a reasonable suspicion that someone is in the country illegally? They could look at me and say, 'She looks a little odd. Take her in.'" Ms. Lamm said she has met with Arizona bar leaders who believe the law is not the appropriate tool for dealing with illegal immigration.

Ms. Lamm also addressed lawyer regulation bills before Congress, the role of pro bono legal help in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, student loan repayment during the economic crisis, and other issues under examination by the ABA at its Annual Meeting in San Francisco in August.