Chief Justice focuses first State of Judiciary Address on Access to Justice

Speaking to a joint session of the Georgia General Assembly, Chief Justice Hugh P. Thompson delivered his first State of the Judiciary address on February 5, 2014.  “As Georgia continues to grow in population and diversity,” the Chief Justice observed, “access to justice is a challenge requiring the commitment and hard work of us all.”
 
altFor those who can afford legal representation, the judicial system is sound and strong; however, many Georgians cannot afford legal representation and too many go without civil legal services.  Nearly 2 million of the state’s citizens live below the poverty line. Georgia has two non-profit law firms that provide civil legal services to poor people.  Because Georgia Legal Services Program and the Atlanta Legal Aid Society have potentially 13,000 clients per lawyer, many clients are turned away.
 
Pro Se Litigants
Georgia’s rural populations are vastly underserved by legal representation.   “Seventy percent of our state’s lawyers work in the five-county Metropolitan Atlanta area. Sixty-two counties have 10 or fewer lawyers. And six of Georgia’s counties have no lawyers at all,” the Chief Justice reported.
 
Increasingly, litigants are representing themselves. Judges report a trend of pro se litigants in domestic relations cases. Judge Adele Grubbs, Superior Court, Cobb County, and Judge Michael Karpf, Superior Court, Eastern Judicial Circuit, both report pro litigants in divorce cases.  Jury trials with self-represented litigants bog down proceedings.
 
Language Access
Providing interpreters is an ongoing challenge in courts across the state. The Lawrenceville Municipal Court schedules a Spanish interpreter eight court sessions a month, but they have found they also need Korean, Bosnian and Russian interpreters. In the last month, DeKalb County State Court Judge Dax Lopez has taken criminal pleas with the use of Thai, Korean and Burmese interpreters.
 
Currently, Georgia has only 149 licensed court interpreters, and they speak only 12 languages. That is not enough, the Chief Justice said.  While Justice Harold Melton has been at the helm of the Georgia Supreme Court’s Commission on Interpreters, the number of certified interpreters has increased and the variety of languages they speak has grown.  
 
Interpreters must do more than simply speak the language. They must also understand legal terminology and their obligation to protect the confidentiality of their clients.  As Justice Keith Blackwell takes over the role of working with the Commission, new plans to roll out continuing education requirements are underway to ensure that Georgia has certified interpreters who remain the very best they can be.
 
Accountability Courts
Governor Deal and the General Assembly, over the past few years, have issued a challenge to the trial courts to increase and enhance the work of accountability courts. 
 
With an appropriation of more than $11 million, by spring, Georgia will have 102 accountability courts with more on the way. Thanks to Superior Court Judges Jack Partain and Jeff Bagley, who co-chair the Accountability Court Funding Committee, more than $9 million of that money has already been granted to local programs.
 
Upon graduation from these courts, 85 percent of the participants are employed. Three years after graduation, 93 percent of all accountability court participants remain free of criminal charges.
 
The Chief Justice stated, “The undeniable truth is: These courts work. They keep our communities safer. They save lives. And they save the state money.  At any given time, there are about 1100 people participating in accountability courts who would otherwise be in the state prison system.  These specialty courts save Georgia more than $20 million a year in state prison costs.”
 
altChief Justice Thompson recognized Judge Ural Glanville, Superior Court, Atlanta Judicial Circuit. Not only does Judge Glanville serve Georgia as a judge, he has served the nation in the US Army for 30 years. In 2012, Judge Glanville was promoted to Brigadier General and served in the combat zone in Kabul, Afghanistan.  Of Glanville, the Chief Justice said, “Judge Glanville is just one of some 1400 judges in our state. But he represents the high caliber of people serving in our judicial system.”

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