HUNTINGTON – The West Virginia Access to Justice Commission is having its third of six public forums to discuss access to justice barriers Monday in Huntington.
State Supreme Court Justices Brent Benjamin and Menis Ketchum will take part in the 90-minute forum, which is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. in the Foundation Hall of the Marshall University Alumni Center, located at 519 John Marshall Drive.
Benjamin is one of 16 members of the Access To Justice Commission. The panel was formed in 2009 when he was Chief Justice. He has attended the two previous forums.
"I think they both were outstanding," he said of the earlier events in Beckley and Martinsburg. "We had a number of people come and talk with us, tell us problems they've had as well as talk about some good things. We got a number of suggestions. It's all vitally important when we look at what needs to be done to make sure everyone has equal access to the court system."
Benjamin said several dozen people attended both of the first two meetings.
"People are increasingly having difficulty finding an attorney," he said. "And when they do, they can't afford them. We're talking about senior citizens, our neighbors, the couple down the street who works and lives on two incomes. We're even talking about more established families having increasing difficulty making ends meet in today's economy.
"But when legal needs arise, they're scrambling. The law, the procedure is intimidating. Sometimes, it's difficult for them even trying to navigate their way through the courthouse."
"It's getting to the point where the middle class doesn't have access to lawyers because of the expense," the Huntington native said. "It's my experience that lawyers really don't want to handle the middle-of-the-road case unless there's a big fee involved. Lawyers have become super-businessmen rather than being a profession.
"We need to do something so the middle class has access to lawyers. The courts are made for litigants."
Benjamin mentioned Legal Aid of West Virginia, but acknowledged that the group already is stretched thin.
"Legal Aid, those folks really work hard," he said. "But we only have 52 or so attorneys with that group, and they are serving 55 counties in the state," he said. "And even then, the income limitations to qualify for Legal Aid are beneath what a lot of West Virginians make. A lot of people simply don't qualify for Legal Aid. Others are turned away because there is a lack of Legal Aid attorneys out there.
"We need to make the entire legal process easier for everyday West Virginians.
Ketchum said he'd like to see something done to make attorneys provide more free work to the community.
"Having a law license is a privilege," he said. "A lot of attorneys brag about they don't provide any free service to the needy. I'm hoping there will be a rule or a law that lawyers have to perform so many hours of free work a year for people who can't afford a lawyer. When lawyers read this statement, they'll mash their teeth. But I think they need to help.
"A lot of them do work with churches and civic groups, and that's great. But they also need to help the guy who can't feed himself and do the dirty hard, legal work."
Information gathered from the series of statewide hearing will be used to conduct a needs assessment regarding civil legal representation in the state. The hearing panel will consist of West Virginia Access to Justice Commissioners.
Local legislators, judges, city and county representatives have been invited to attend. The Commission also encourages those who have experienced barriers to the civil legal system to sign up to speak.
The Commission would like to hear from speakers who can address a number of issues including language barriers, attorney fees, court costs, lack of transportation to courthouses, illiteracy, lack of notice, lack of disability accessibility, lack of sign language interpreters for the deaf, cognitive impairments, income just above poverty guidelines yet still prohibitive of obtaining legal services, and others.
Upcoming forums are scheduled Sept. 26 in Wheeling, Nov. 1 in Morgantown, and Nov. 15 in Charleston at the state Supreme Court chambers.
The West Virginia Supreme Court established the Access to Justice Commission on Jan. 29, 2009, by Administrative Order. The purpose of the commission is to assist West Virginians to overcome barriers within the civil legal system. These hearings will allow the Commission to identify those barriers.
Those interested in speaking at the hearings or needing language or disability assistance can contact Deborah Bogan at 304-558-0145 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All speakers will have a designated period of time allotted to them to convey their messages.
Benjamin urged those interested to attend the forums. But for those who can't, he said they can contact the court in other ways.
"We know it's difficult for some people to come out," he said. "But those who can come and talk to us. It's very important for us to hear from them. But they can always call the Court or they can email.
"You don't' have to come to the forum to have input. But it does give the members of the commission a chance to ask questions, and that's where we get some of our best information."
He said all of the information gathered in the forums will be assessed. A second group of meetings around the state will take place in the spring in locations not visited this fall. He called the entire process "an ongoing dynamic procedure."
"Then, we'll have a survey of legal groups and start to pull together the needs assessment sometime next year. If we see a problem that requires immediate attention, we'll address that.
"For example, we already have a subcommittee on workers' compensation issues. We already are working with attorneys, insurers and others to begin looking at those issues. And those suggestions might include statutory changes."