Francis Suarez
Francis Suarez (J. Albert Diaz)

Equal access to justice in our civil court system is an ideal which we all embrace and believe in. Unfortunately, in Florida and elsewhere, equal access to justice in civil matters falls far short of the ideal in our post-recession reality. For far too many people, courts are where they will lose their homes, children, their life savings when they are faced with no other option than going to court without legal representation. When they arrive in court unprepared, without the information or papers they need, the end result often is unfortunate outcomes and a drag on court operations. The “justice gap” widens in hard times and is serious at all times.

A new program in Florida called “Lawyers in Libraries” helps to bridge the information gap for those who cannot afford legal counsel or who wish to investigate for themselves their options for handling a civil legal matter. First initiated in late 2013, Lawyers in Libraries connects volunteer lawyers with their local public libraries to accomplish two goals—to educate librarians about free, online access to legal resources available in Florida and how to help library patrons with their legal needs and to address library patrons directly about free legal resources, how to find and choose a lawyer, tips for appearing in court alone, how to dress, and what information or documents to carry to court.

The Florida Lawyers in Libraries program is supported by Florida Legal Services Inc., The Florida Bar Foundation, One Campaign, Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services of The Florida Bar, Florida Pro Bono Coordinators Association, Florida Library Association, and the Division of Library and Information Services of the State of Florida.

The Lawyers in Libraries program was first implemented in our community in May 2014 in our Miami-Dade Public Library System at the Hispanic, Model City, Kendall, Arcola Lakes, Coconut Grove, North Dade Regional and Main library branches. According to Kathy Grunewald, state coordinator of the program at Florida Legal Services, the Miami-Dade experience was successful and underscored the need for accurate, timely information about the legal system in urban areas where income, language and transportation barriers often compound already scary and unfamiliar court proceedings. She said she was amazed at the long lines outside the Hispanic Branch library as patrons waited for the doors to open. She said, “Clearly, there is a very high trust factor between Miami-Dade library patrons and library staff.”

Miami-Dade librarians Sue Cvejanovich and John Shipley participated in the program at the Main Library. “It was well received by our patrons and, equally important, provided our staff with up-to-date resource references on legal information that we can pass on to our patrons,” Cvejanovich said. Shipley said, “It was helpful to observe a bright, young lawyer respond to library patron questions but avoid giving specific legal advice.” Both librarians emphasized that the Lawyers in Libraries program does not provide specific legal advice to patrons but, rather, provides access to legal information.

Ironically, this new, innovative program adapted by our local libraries based on a statewide model comes at a time when our libraries face yet another year of crippling budget cuts. If the currently proposed budget for libraries is ultimately approved, our community will suffer especially those who rely on our libraries for free access to information, books, internet, tutoring, children’s programs and a safe, welcoming environment. Funding for our Miami-Dade Public Library System has been cut by 55% since 2010 and staffing reduced by one-third during a time of great reliance on libraries by those who cannot otherwise afford access to information, books, tutoring and the internet.

In recent years, all elected officials have asked their staff to do more with less but there does come a point where there is no more fat to cut while continuing to provide the services that our constituents need and expect. The upcoming budget year is that point in time for our Miami-Dade Library System. For this reason, I am supporting a $64 million budget for our Library System to reverse the pattern of fewer services for those who need them the most. Without full funding for our public libraries in the coming year, programs like Lawyers in Libraries will not survive. Such an outcome would be penny-wise and pound-foolish.