For lay people, successfully navigating the civil justice system can be a confusing, stressful, and expensive process. Many people can afford to retain an attorney who will provide them with a full range of legal services. For these individuals, competent representation makes navigating the system a lot less frustrating. Unfortunately, too many people cannot afford to get the information or help they need to handle their civil law matter.
In 2009, The Supreme Court of Georgia Equal Justice Commission’s Committee on Civil Justice highlighted this issue when it commissioned Kennesaw State University to conduct a study regarding the civil legal needs of modest and moderate income Georgians. The study’s results were sobering. The study found that more than 60 percent of the households surveyed experience one or more civil legal needs per year.
Many of these civil legal needs relate to family law-related matters, including divorce, child custody, child support, etc. In fact, according to Georgia’s Administrative Office of the Courts, in 2011, there were 277,296 civil cases filed in Georgia’s Superior Courts, of which 182,127, or 66 percent, were family law cases. The number of civil cases in Superior Court actually dropped from the prior year, but the percent of family law cases went up by 6%.
Thus, family law-related matters represent a significant number of the cases heard in Superior Court.
Sadly, only a fraction of the people who have civil legal needs actually get to court. In addition, despite the high level of legal needs among economically challenged Georgians and the complexity of the legal system, nearly 75 percent of individuals tried to resolve their problem on their own. The study found that for many, poverty was a leading cause of keeping them from accessing the court system altogether or appearing in court without an attorney.
What’s the problem with so many unrepresented litigants? According to the study, 95% of court personnel report that the large number of unrepresented litigants impedes the efficient functioning of the court system. Also, the study found that 67% of those who got legal help were satisfied with the outcome of their case, whereas 60% of unrepresented litigants were unsatisfied with the disposition of their matter. Clearly, having a trained attorney makes a difference. The bottom line is that many Georgians do not have access to an attorney and, consequently, are at a disadvantage when they come in contact with the civil justice system, if they reach the courthouse steps at all.
Visit one of our three locations in Atlanta, Marietta, or Savannah and take advantage of this revolution in the provision of legal services.
by Luis Velez, Justice Café Executive Director