One of the pillars of our Republic is the promise of equal treatment under the law. That’s why the opening of Maricopa County Superior Court’s Law Library Resource Center is such a big deal.
It’s part of our commitment to provide access to justice for all members of our community, no matter where you live, who you know, or how much money you have.
Let’s face it: many of us will have to deal with some kind of legal issue in our lifetimes. An employment or housing dispute. A divorce. A fight over custody.
In fact, a 2013 American Bar Association study found two thirds of adults surveyed reported having gone through a “civil justice situation” within the previous 18 months with nearly half resulting in some kind of negative consequence for the person.
While some members of our community know a lawyer, or have the means to pay for legal advice, many more do not.
The most recent Census Bureau statistics show 16 percent of Maricopa County households live in poverty. And the 2013 American Bar Association study found low-income households are more likely than others to be involved in some kind of civil justice situation.
When you’re accused of a crime, of course, you’re entitled to an attorney. But not so in civil cases, and more people than you might expect either choose, or are forced, to represent themselves.
According to Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Scott Bales, in family courts “about 80 percent of cases have at least one side that is self-represented. In justice courts, a large number are self-represented.”
That’s where the new law library comes in.
I had the opportunity to attend the grand opening, and I can tell you it is a great step forward in our effort to ensure our court system is serving all of our residents. In the library you can talk with people who know the legal system and who have done what you’re trying to do.
There are training and conference rooms. here are public computers. There’s even a place to file documents with the court.
Chief Justice Bales has made access to justice a priority. One of his goals is expanding the number of web-based forms and e-filing options. He also wants to take some of the mystery out of the system, by helping self-representing litigants better understand what records they are being asked to provide and where to find them.
Maricopa County Superior Court shares these objectives.
Under the leadership of Presiding Judge Janet Barton, we have worked hard to bring our courts to the people, whether it’s the consolidation of 26 justice courts into five, all-service regional courts; our presence at events like Maricopa County Stand Down, where we work with veterans to clear up their legal trouble so they can get on with their lives; or projects like the new Law Library Resource Center, which combines the Court’s Law Library, Protective Order Center, and Self-Service Center into one centralized, user friendly facility.
As a former mediator in the Maricopa County Justice Courts, I know how important it is for everyone involved in a dispute to get good counsel. As a lawyer, I know how the complexity of our system can overwhelm those unfamiliar with it.
As a public servant, I believe we have a responsibility to make sure access to money does not determine access to justice.
That’s why the new law library is more than just a library; it’s a place to uplift members of our community, to give them a voice, and to make good on our Nation’s promise to provide everyone a fair shot.
-Denny Barney is chairs the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors