Lawyer-Referral Portal To Get Its Start In Clay County

May 20, 2016

Floridians who can't afford a lawyer, but aren't poor enough to qualify for free legal aid, might soon have a new tool to help them prepare for their day in court.

A Florida Supreme Court commission is developing an internet portal to connect middle class people with attorneys.

Roughly 85 percent of Floridians represent themselves in family court — mostly because they can't afford lawyers, said Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga, citing a study from the Florida Bar. He said in his 13 years as a trial judge, the situation became painful to watch.

“On the one side you have a very polished, very qualified lawyer representing a bank or a lending institution. Then on the other side you see the husband and wife with a little file with maybe three pieces of paper in it and they’re shaking at their knees because they don't know what to do,” he said.

As a judge, he couldn't intervene, even when he knew the one thing they should say to win the case. That’s why he formed the Commission on Access to Civil Justice in 2014, and — based on a study by the commission — announced the development of the online portal Friday.

“Once you get into the portal and you put in what your issue is, it will tell you pretty much where you can go that will give you assistance at a price you can afford or perhaps for no price at all,” he said.

The portal will include lawyers willing to work pro-bono or at reduced prices. It’ll be completely funded through grants and private donations.

The legal exchange’s trial run will take place in Clay County and will eventually expand to the entire state. While the commission was set up solely to create the report released Friday, Labarga said his goal is to create a permanent commission to study the public's access to civil justice. He said he also hopes to bring the legislative and executive branches on board with public funding.