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Panel calls for more online access to justice system

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(istock)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Trying to make legal services more accessible in Florida, recommendations released Monday call for a "robust" website outlining local, state and national legal resources that low- and moderate-income residents could access at home or on an increased number of public computers.

The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, created by Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, also called in an interim report for additional people providing pro bono services and to draw leftover money from class-action lawsuits to help fund legal-aid efforts.

Labarga, in a letter to the other justices that was included with the report, called the recommendations a "solid foundation" to expand access to civil justice.

"I am confident the commission is on the right path to create meaningful access to civil justice for all Floridians," Labarga wrote.

The report notes there is "anecdotal evidence" that a growing number of Floridians are heading to court without legal representation, mostly involving family-court cases.

"The commission was also informed that mortgage foreclosure cases and landlord-tenant cases more frequently involve self-represented litigants," the report said. "In addition, it is reported that the courts are seeing more cases in which at the beginning of the case one or both parties are represented, but that one or both of the parties do not retain their legal representation through final disposition of the case."

The committee, created in November 2014 to make civil-justice services more accessible to needy Floridians, will meet again Feb. 12 in Tallahassee.

Craig Waters, a spokesman for the Supreme Court, said no action is expected to be taken on the recommendations until the committee's final report is submitted. The final report is due June 30.

The interim report notes that local legal-aid agencies, long a safety net for many low-income residents, serve about 20 percent of the needs of indigent civil litigants.

"This does not even take into account the many working-class Floridians who earn too much to qualify for legal aid, but not enough to afford to hire an attorney," the report said. "This is the Florida civil justice gap."

Among the recommendations is the creation of an "easy-to-use" Florida Civil Legal Resources Access Website, integrating existing systems from the courts, pro bono community and legal services programs.

To make the site more accessible, the committee recommended the continued development of the Statewide Gateway Portal, which would make more public computers available at libraries, shopping malls or courthouses as a type of legal "triage" for those needing help with divorces, foreclosures or child support.

The committee also recommended that a rule be revised so that more individuals, such as judges who have retired to Florida, could provide pro bono services.

To help fund legal aid, the commission proposed using residual money that remains after class-action lawsuits.

"Eighteen states have court rules or statutes providing for legal aid organizations to receive class action residuals," the report said.