Maine Justice Action Group
Dear Justice Mead,
I was very pleased to be able to speak with you briefly, Tuesday, and to hear your presentation to members of the Legislature's Joint Committee on the Judiciary. Your presentation was helpful in getting a brief, general overview of your group's work in seeking "justice for all".
I think everyone agrees with the title of your "Maine Voices" contribution to the Portland Press Herald in 2014: "To ensure that justice truly is for all in Maine". My questions are about just how the Justice Action Group is doing this. You kindly encouraged me to forward questions for consideration by members of the Justice Action Group and herewith are my concerns and questions:
1. Has the committee set any numerical goals for measuring an improvement in Maine's access to justice, year by year? 75% using Maine family courts are widely reported to be 'pro se' litigants. This, on its face, suggests an access to justice problem for these people. It also suggests that, with no lawyer to represent them, they are a disadvantaged class in court. From state figures for 2015, 75%" equals about 17,065 self-representing Mainers, or over 1% of the state population. Does the committee hope its planned programmatic "interventions" will reduce these figures in a calculable way? Say, from 75% to 70%, or 65% in 1-5 years (or in some other specific time period)? As we know, these statistical numbers are not static. Older cases without service accumulate, many cases remain active for more than a year. New cases keep coming in at various rates. Without working statistics, statistical targets and a population-oriented approach, it is hard to measure the effectiveness of various types of interventions aimed at reducing the numerical size of the problem.
2. On the very commendable news about the expansion of legal services for the 'pro se' population, we frequently hear user concerns expressed about financial eligibility for no fee or low fee legal service. People report: I don't understand if I am eligible for services from web information? People we talk with express great difficulty in getting clear, straight answers when they call. We have wondered why these low cost legal services don't post simple, explicit, user-friendly information on their web sites that would enable viewers to see at a glance, if it is worth trying for their service. It shouldn't be "rocket science" for consumers. One spokesperson for low cost legal service told me in a recent phone conversation that their formula was complex, but it essentially boiled down to "food stamp" eligibility. The spokesperson added, "We don't want to be perceived by the bar as competitors for clients." To us it suggested a special interest problem in solving the 'pro se' problem. To what extent are your allowable target populations defined by bar concerns about losing potential clients? Is the bar concerned about "losses" inhibiting more rapid movement by your group? I would also ask about the "match" between geographic spread of the 'pro se' problem across the state and geographic spread/location of services for this population?
3. There is a very old saying, "Beggars shouldn't be choosers"; however, in modern times, a part of any good program management is regular program evaluation. Is there any evaluation of the quality of various legal programs for the poor, or, more recently - for those of "modest means"? Is the professional quality served "the poor" the same as that of full pay legal services, or is there an "economy service"? How do the "consumers" of these services feel about them? Are consumer satisfaction surveys being done?
4. From what I can determine, the Maine Justice Action Group is heavily weighted with members of the legal profession, yet the large majority of "advocacy" in family courts (75%) is being done by 'pro se' litigants. They know the 'pro se' experience, they know their problems with it, they know the things that do and do not work. This population makes up a very sizable majority; only 25% have lawyers. The 'pro se' litigant is the "new normal" in family courts (certainly numerically). Has consideration been given to proportional representation of this population in your access to justice deliberations? It might give the Justice Action Group fresh insights into what the experience feels like from the perspective of a 'pro se' person, and it might provide a healthy challenge to the inherent conservatism of any professionally dominated planning group. It is about taking a more deliberately consumer-friendly orientation and about thinking "outside of the professional box". I would also emphasize that there is a difference between "public members" of Judicial Branch committees and actual 'pro se' litigants. It is the latter who need to be heard.
5. Where does Maine fit nationally in the access to justice "spectrum"? Top rank? Middle? Bottom? Have recommendations for improvements in the Maine program been suggested by the national group? Are you seeing promising developments in other states that might fit Maine?
ADDENDUM FOR CONSIDERATION: Two more radical concepts have been discussed with us, and both might solve the current stresses of the 'pro se' access to justice problem, while perhaps raising other issues: (a) the Scandinavian approach to divorce seems to remove divorce from the courts altogether except for cases of proven abuse. (b) divorce is an enormous "profit center" for many lawyers. Shouldn't this unrepresented divorce population also be a professional bar responsibility for the privilege of a law license? Dividing the 'pro se' population equitably amongst all lawyers in regular office practice might be an amazing catalyst for other changes. It might actually lead to pressure from the divorce bar to adopt the Scandinavian approach to divorce and custody. In a stroke, this would eliminate the 'pro se' build up in divorces. But to move from concept to implementation one would need to alter the "Stakeholder" political dynamic. A large representation of "consumer stakeholders" on the Justice Action Group might alter the group's political dynamic and speed up the accessing of justice.
I offer these questions and thoughts as an outsider to your group, who has been an active observer of the family court 'pro se' problem for 4 1/2 years. I would suggest with all due respect that the access to justice problem is a large one and requires urgent action. As numbers have expanded (75%), there is inevitably an increase of stress, tension and breakage in the system. The "new normal" is not a happy normal by any means, and it is producing an erosion of how courts function (or don't), It is a very unbalanced, awkward "new normal" that disrupts grounded professional traditions. Most importantly, along with this damage is the very disturbing loss of public respect for our judicial system.
Please, do not hesitate to call on me if any of my queries are unclear.
Jerome A Collins, MD
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