“The vibrancy of our Democracy depends upon our willingness to ensure that the fullest range of voices and interests is represented and heard. This is what the fight for equal justice is all about.”
– Hon. Robert F. Utter, Retired Justice, Washington State Supreme Court
Washington State’s justice system is founded upon the fundamental principle that the justice system is accessible to all persons. The purpose of this website is to provide current, useful and in-depth information about the “Access to Justice Movement” in Washington State, an explosion of activity that is improving and expanding access to the justice system for low and moderate income people, and moving us closer to our goal of equal justice for all.
IMPORTANT MESSAGE FROM THE WASHINGTON STATE BAR ASSOCIATION BOARD OF GOVERNORS
You may have seen the news reports. Washington State is facing a revenue shortfall of $2.9 billion – and growing. This state funding situation presents us with an urgent crisis. As your representative on the WSBA Board of Governors, I am asking for your input.
This year, the civil equal justice delivery system sustained an unexpected loss of $996,000 in state funding. To make matters worse, the Legal Foundation of Washington, which administers IOLTA funds, has projected a $1.2 million shortfall in revenues for 2003. The Foundation has already instituted cuts to 9 pro bono and other programs, with more cuts to come. Columbia Legal Services and the Northwest Justice Project have already lost 20 full time staff attorneys throughout the state. Many offices are operating at half strength or worse, just as the level and urgency of the low-income community’s civil legal needs escalate.
It is clear that our state’s civil equal justice delivery system cannot survive another hit and sustain its current, already shrunken “footprint”. Which of the remaining pro bono and specialty provider programs or staffed offices in the statewide equal justice system should be shut down next? Spokane? Tacoma? Everett? The Tri-Cities (not again!)? Yakima? Wenatchee? Chehalis? Port Angeles? Colville? Olympia? King County? Vancouver? Bellingham?
To address the perpetual funding crisis faced by the civil equal justice delivery system, the Supreme Court in November 2001 created the Task Force on Civil Equal Justice Funding, and charged it with developing a long-term, permanent solution. While the Task Force’s work is ongoing, intervening circumstances have forced it to grapple with a short-term emergency.
The Need for Action:
On October 16, 2002, the Task Force on Civil Equal Justice Funding concluded that emergency action is needed to preserve core civil equal justice delivery capacities that will otherwise be threatened by the loss of over $2 million per year in the coming biennium. The Task Force unanimously recommended that the Supreme Court, the Board for Judicial Administration, the Washington State Bar Association and the Access to Justice Board/Equal Justice Coalition consider and endorse an interim emergency strategy that would increase the superior court filing fee by $90 (from $110 to $200). Such an increase is projected to raise $5 million in new funding per year for the purpose of stabilizing our state’s civil equal justice programs from further cuts, and restoring capacity to the inadequate levels that existed in 1999.
This information was shared with the Board of Governors at its meeting on October 19, 2002 in Bremerton. While there is no one perfect solution, the Governors agree that it is important that WSBA and its partners in the justice community come forward in the next session with a short-term interim strategy.
In light of the great budget uncertainties and deep state budget deficits facing the State Legislature and the Governor this coming session, other proposals, such as an increase in support from the state’s general fund, have little or no chance of success. An increase in the civil filing fee is the proposal most likely to result in the urgent and immediate interim relief needed. (Please note that Superior Court filing fees are currently “split” 54%/46% between the counties and the state account that supports equal justice services, and the proposal maintains the “split” so that county budgets, which in turn support local justice systems and law enforcement, will also benefit.)
The Board of Governors believes the integrity of our state’s justice system rests on its openness and responsiveness to the needs of all, including poor and vulnerable people, and those who face barriers to the system. While this burden should not fall on the legal profession alone, and must be shared with government, the courts, the public, and our profession, nonetheless, the WSBA and members of the legal profession have a special duty, as creatures of the Supreme Court’s governmental authority, to protect and promote the integrity of our state’s justice system. We believe that a civil filing fee that produces revenues dedicated to ensuring the proper functioning and accessibility of the civil justice system is a rational vehicle for raising the funding necessary to help underwrite civil equal justice services for those who would otherwise be shut out.
By this communication, the WSBA Board of Governors invites you, our members, to share your thoughts about the current crisis and the course of action we are proposing to pursue in light of our longstanding professional, ethical and organizational commitment to the promise of equal justice for all.
Please send your comments to your WSBA Governor. For a list of names and contact information, please visit the WSBA Web site.
Thank you for your interest.