Honolulu Advertiser, November 9, 2007: Community can do more to help poor

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The communal ethic, which by tradition has been strong in Hawai’i, seems to have diminished in importance. As our economy becomes increasingly one of rich and poor, the culture of the individual is supplanting the view that community needs are a collective responsibility.

Legal services needed to navigate the rough seas of disputes, from landlord-tenant issues to child-custody cases, are one element of that unmet need. “Achieving Access to Justice for Hawai’i’s People,” a community action plan by the Access to Justice Hui that was released this week, underscores the acute problem.

The hui is an association made up of the Hawai’i State Bar Association, the Judiciary, the Hawai’i Justice Foundation and other law groups. The report points out that about four of every five low- to moderate-income people have found needed legal help unavailable.

This is a crisis that has been mounting in recent years. For example, one of the hui’s agencies, Volunteer Legal Services Hawai’i, was cut off from its funding source a few years ago, but has restructured itself and now appears financially stable. However, the organization still lacks enough volunteer attorneys to assist with cases on a pro-bono basis.

That office is only one of several that deal with a demand that is increasing as the poverty rate rises. The hui wisely recognizes the poverty link and has recommended that the legal community be part of a broad coalition to find solutions to the root causes of poverty.

But at the top of the list of the hui’s recommendations is a call for the Hawai’i Supreme Court to establish an Access to Justice Commission, which would concentrate on removing barriers that block poor people when they try to contend with the baffling, complex justice system. Solving this problem will take a committed, sustained focus.

The Judiciary also is promoting pro-bono work: A recent rule change requires attorneys to report annual pro-bono hours. It’s a good start, but mandating a minimum number of hours should be the next step. Additionally, the Judicial Selection Commission should make pro-bono work by attorneys more formally a consideration in evaluating them for judicial posts.

Finally, law firms themselves should give lawyers more time for community service. Attorneys have unequalled access to the justice system, and with that privilege comes a duty to help those who have none.

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