Professor David Udell announces the Justice Index at Cardozo Law. 

March 3, 2014 National Law Journal - Oklahoma has no policies in place to help people with limited English skills negotiate their legal problems, does little to assist people who represent themselves and maintains fewer than one civil legal aid attorney for every 10,000 people living below the poverty level, according to a new report. By those and other measures, the state ranks at the very bottom in ensuring access to justice.

That's according to the Justice Index — the National Center for Access to Justice's 50-state survey of Americans' ability to use the justice system. Despite Oklahoma's low ranking, Michael Figgins, head of Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma Inc., the state's sole legal aid provider, welcomed the scrutiny.

"Initially, I think someone would see that 50th ranking and say, 'Wow!' But I'm encouraged. I think the index is empowering and it tells us that we can do better," Figgins said. "To put it bluntly, it's one thing to say, 'I have body odor.' It's another thing for someone else to say, 'You have body odor.' " 

The nonprofit national center, housed at the Yeshiva University Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, ranked the states with pro bono assistance from Pfizer Inc.'s legal department; Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom; and Deloitte & Touche LLP. Law students from Cardozo and the University of Pennsylvania Law School also helped.

They scored each state on a 100-point scale, with Minnesota scoring highest at 69.4 and Oklahoma the lowest at 23.7. The national average came in at 48.7.

Among the other findings:
• 28 states have fewer than one civil legal aid attorney for every 10,000 people living below the poverty line; the national average is 40 attorneys for every 10,000 people.
• Nearly one-quarter of states lack rules that allow court clerks to offer information to unrepresented litigants.
• 22 percent of states allow judges to make hearing-impaired people pay for sign-language interpretation.

"The Justice Index is really a first step in creating a resource that can be an engine of reform," David Udell, executive director of the center, said when releasing the report on Feb. 26. "Our hope is that across the country, legislators, courts and bar associations will use this information to promote reforms."

The project website contains maps, charts and additional data about access to justice, rating states in four primary areas: the number of civil legal aid attorneys available to represent people living below the poverty line, and assistance for self-represented litigants, non-English speakers and people with disabilities.

Skadden attorneys spent more than 1,300 hours sifting though statutes and codes of judicial conduct, surveying court officials and scouring the Internet for data, associate Mondi Basmenji said. Each state's overall rank represents a composite of the four categories. Minnesota owes its high score largely to robust assistance programs for people with disabilities and limited English skills.

Cathy Haukedahl, executive director of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, wasn't surprised that the state scored relatively well, given the close coordination between its six large regional legal aid organizations and 20 smaller legal aid groups.

"Compared to many other states, we have strong legislative, [state] Supreme Court and private sector support. We have the resources," she said.

Even so, civil legal aid providers still turn away two of every three people who seek help, she said.

COMMISSION FORMING

In Oklahoma, Figgins' operation is the sole legal aid provider, with 22 offices and 76 attorneys. He traced the difficulty to a spread-out population and high poverty rates, among other challenges. The state is forming a commission to address the situation, and Figgins hopes the low ranking will provide ammunition for the push for reform. 

In seventh-ranked New York, Fern Fisher, deputy chief administrative judge for New York City, said the index demonstrates that access to justice is still a "work in progress" around the country. "I don't know that it's necessary to use it for comparison's sake, but for people on the national level to get a bird's eye picture of the situation is very useful," she said.

The results do not break down uniformly across regions, nor do states with higher average incomes necessarily have better access to justice, Udell said. Access to justice isn't just about more spending, he said, but rather the willingness of state legislators, judges and other players to innovate and make access to the legal system for all people a priority. 

For example, Tennessee had the eighth-highest overall ranking and neighboring Kentucky the sixth lowest, even though median household incomes in both states are nearly identical. The Tennessee Alliance for Legal services and the Tennessee Bar Association maintain a service whereby low-income people can email their legal questions, which are answered by volunteer lawyers.

Similarly, New Mexico had the 14th-highest overall score and Arizona the fifth lowest. Nearly 20 percent of Arizonans have limited English skills, yet the state requires no certification for court interpreters, no rules requiring the use of interpreters in criminal or civil court, and no training requirements for judges working with interpreters, the Justice Index found.

The center's next step is to approach the American Bar Association, the National Center for State Courts, the Legal Services Corp. and other industry groups seeking partnerships to expand the project. Udell said he hopes to examine the criminal justice next.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.