Last month, Rolling Stone came out with an article titled “The Sharp, Sudden Decline of America’s Middle Class.” The story describes the current unemployed struggles of the middle class. It talks specifically about the 150 people who live in Santa Barbara parking lots. Several of these people had stable employment not that long ago. The article goes on to list some other chilling statistics: 5.4 million Americans have been out of work for at least six months. 750,000 Americans are completely broke or heading to it. As the parking program coordinator states in the article, “I’m worried about the psychological damage it does when you have a place and then, all of a sudden, you’re in your car. You have to be depressed just from the fall itself, from losing everything and not understanding how it could happen.”
When the economy fell, it took a great number of people down with it. Some were like those in the Rolling Stone article – people who prepared for a rainy day, but didn’t prepare for a Category 5 hurricane. Many of those people need legal help. They join the millions of low-income people around this country who have been relying on the pro bono programs of the judicial system for decades. And the judicial system has responded admirably.
Take the recent Washington Supreme Court “legal technicians” proposal. For those of you who haven’t heard, last month, the Washington Supreme Court created a new category of non-attorney legal service provider called the “legal technician.”
The goal of the rule is admirable: “to assist the thousands of unrepresented individuals seeking to resolve important civil legal matters each day in our courts.” The reach of the rule is limited: to divorces, child custody, support petitions, etc. The legal technician will help complete court forms, review pleadings and assist with filings and general court procedure. She will not, however, be an attorney.
The wisdom and logistics of the proposal are worth discussing (and have been by many bloggers and critics). At a minimum we can agree that the proposal is another manifestation of the growing trend among courts since 2008 to improve access to justice. In that, Illinois is a trendsetter.
On April 11, 2011, the Illinois Supreme Court created the Mortgage Foreclosure Committee. The move was a direct response to the unprecedented number of foreclosures occurring throughout the state. Assisted by interested party submissions and public hearings, the Committee reviews foreclosure procedures and legislative proposals in this state and others. It ultimately will recommend to the Supreme Court statewide mortgage foreclosure rules. As Justice Theis said at the formation of the Committee, “It is important that the Court try to do what it can to lend some stability and certitude to what is a financially and emotionally chaotic process. Mortgage foreclosure proceedings in Illinois need to be fair, efficient, and final.” Divisions of the Court across the state have started similar foreclosure committees to help address the nation’s housing crisis.
A year later, the Court went one step further. In June 2012, the Court created the Illinois Supreme Court Access to Justice Commission. Composed of 11 persons appointed by the Supreme Court, the Illinois Bar Foundation, the Chicago Bar Foundation, the Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois and the Illinois Equal Justice Foundation, the Commission’s goal is to promote, facilitate and enhance equal access to justice for all. According to Chief Justice Kilbride, “[t]he purpose is to make access to justice a high priority for everyone in the legal system. This includes judges, clerks, attorneys, other court personnel and even our law schools.” Illinois joins 26 states, and the District of Washington, in forming a Commission solely focused on improving access to the courts.
We should applaud our state’s increased focus on helping people of modest and moderate means, as it continues to help those of no means at all. The Great Recession rolls on interminably with no end in sight. The judiciary must remain committed to the ultimate goal of justice for all. Because for those in the Santa Barbara parking lot, and the millions like them, the bad times could keep going, could slow down, or could start all over again. Like a rolling stone.