Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson of the Texas Supreme Court issued his State of the Judiciary message on March 6. In his remarks, Chief Justice Jefferson, who is also member of the Quality Judges Initiative O’Connor Advisory Committee, called for greater access to justice for litigants and families across the socioeconomic spectrum and more efficient courts that can process cases in a reasonable amount of time:
The sad fact is that the middle class and small businesses find our system unworkable and unaffordable. They believe there are too many unnecessary lawsuits, coupled with incessant legal wrangling that drags out cases. And they feel that even if they are entitled to a remedy for a legal wrong, they cannot afford the fees a lawyer quotes for vindication. It is time for us to do our part to answer these concerns, because if the remedy is unaffordable, justice is denied.
In a recently published article, IAALS Executive Director Rebecca Love Kourlis discusses the significant unmet legal need of those who cannot find or afford an attorney, while at the same time many recent law graduates are having trouble finding jobs. Chief Justice Jefferson echoes these sentiments:
We have more lawyers in America than at any time in our history. In 1960, there was one lawyer for every 627 people in the United States. Today, there is one for every 252. Isn’t it ironic that as litigants are increasingly forced to represent themselves, law school graduates cannot find jobs?
I believe that we have to shift our thinking. Access to justice is about more than giving a poor person a lawyer. An accessible justice system requires that even broader segments of our society be able to use it, including those that are forced to navigate the judicial system alone. Our remedies must be expansive and creative. We must change the way we do business in our courts to meet the needs of all citizens and businesses while at the same time improving customer service, increasing transparency, and investing in technology to decrease costs and increase efficiency. We must develop a judicial climate in which people who lack money to hire a lawyer have a reasonable chance to vindicate their rights.
According to Chief Justice Jefferson, Texas remains a leader in the development of simplified court proceedings that help everyday litigants get access to justice and a verdict more quickly:
Through the promulgation of procedural rules, we can reduce the expense and delay of litigation while simultaneously protecting the rights of litigants. At the Legislature’s direction, the Supreme Court recently adopted rules to simplify proceedings in cases involving claims for monetary relief of less than $100,000. Discovery is limited; the cases are expedited. Now, a case that is vital to the success of a small business owner can actually be tried, to a verdict. A remedy for a legal injury – even for the individual who cannot afford to pay a lawyer $500 an hour. The Supreme Court also adopted a rule allowing trial courts to dismiss cases that have no basis in law or fact. The net result is that cases that have no business in the courts will be shown the door, expediting relief for litigants who are subject to frivolous suits. Finally, we are working on rules to simplify and consolidate small claims cases in our justice courts.