DISABILITY ACCESS AND PERCEIVED ATTITUDES
DANIEL F.: It was primarily important for me to attend tonight’s Listening Event to present a perspective on blindness that members of the Commission may not have otherwise possessed.
The principal problem that we face is limited understanding about our capacity. We deal with social misconception, and social misconception is the root of all the difficulty that we face, whether that difficulty is the result of not being able to serve on a jury because we’re misunderstood or it’s thought that we’re not able; whether that difficult is an assumption by a judge or an attorney that our capacity to parent is limited; or whether that difficulty has to do with accessing documents in the court. All of our challenges stem from the broad issue of social misunderstanding.
I came tonight to do what I could to shed some light on that issue, to try and demonstrate that blind people represent the full diversity of our community. There are bright people who are blind. There are less bright people who are blind. That we represent all aspects of the human condition. And that there is nothing inherent in blindness that can be defined as a single characteristic, other than the fact that most of us have limited vision.
MS. RICCOBONO: When I went to serve, luckily I was able to serve on the, I wasn’t able to serve on a jury, I was not picked. But I was able to serve on some panels. But right away when I walked in the person that I spoke with said, “Oh, well we can get you dismissed.” And I said, “I don’t want, why?” And they said, “Well, you’re, you’re, you’re disabled, you’re,” and they couldn’t even maybe say the word, and then I think that he finally said blind, or sight impaired, or something. And I said, “Look, I’ve arranged childcare for my son all day. It’s my civic duty to serve, and I would like to be given the opportunity. If I had wanted to be dismissed I would have tried to have been dismissed a long time ago.”
And this should not happen. Right now, pro se representation is not possible for people who are blind because the documents are not accessible. And there are laws on the books that say that state websites need to be accessible to all people with disabilities, to all people in general.
MS. GOLDBERG: I think that the materials that are provided are often in too small type font for seniors to be able to use. They really need larger print availability. They need to have court notices that are, have more contrast so that they are easier to read, so that it’s easier to tell where the important information is. The important information about the trial date is usually in a date stamp that turns out very light on the copy that the litigant actually receives. And that’s the most important information, when is their court date? And it’s hard to read.
CHALLENGES FOR SELF-REPRESENTED LITIGANTS
TEKYA B.: I was self-represented, because I had already spent enough money in Virginia, and I was determined that I could do this on my own. I’m a smart enough person, I can read, and I’m literate.
The resources that could have been used in this court system? Definitely have an advocate to explain what the system, what the steps are, or even as simple as putting information on the website so that on my own leisure I can read through and reread again, what do I need to do? What do I need to bring? What is the experience going to be like?
MALIKA S.: I’m foreign-born, and I don’t know the legal system and I didn’t think. Because in France, for instance, you can write to whomever and it’s okay, it’s accepted. And I did write to the judges quite a few times complaining about this, or this, or that. For instance, the fact that I thought the judges were impartial, or whatever else. And I didn’t know that it was a mistake. I hadn’t a clue. It was written nowhere that I couldn’t, I was not allowed to do that. But I didn’t know the system.
MS. GOLDBERG: I think one of the issues is when you have particularly crowded dockets, like the landlord/tenant and the debt collection dockets, where there are a large number of unrepresented litigants. There should be a real examination of what the process is there, and not the process so that it can speed up the docket for the court system, or for the attorneys. But rather how can this best serve the litigants who are involved, particularly the pro se litigants who are there.
Some of the litigants are all called to be heard at the same time. And that means that they all have to take off work and sit there all morning long waiting to hear their failure to pay rent case. And that’s not fair to them. The attorneys are always heard first and the pro se litigants are heard last, and that’s just not right.
MS. KEYSER: Because I see that in the court systems there’s a disconnect, where the judges feel they’re listening to a case, they feel they’re getting all the information, but they’re just not on the same level with the victim. They have no idea that someone’s walking into the hearings, especially on the civil side, a day or forty-eight hours after being beaten by somebody. And they’re asking the person to understand proceedings that the language, the legalese, is way above their comprehension. Plus the fact that they’ve been traumatized. I mean, they’ve been beaten, and they’re walking in the courtroom less than forty-eight hours later, and they’re being asked to make decisions. And meanwhile they’re sitting in close proximity to the person that beat them.
MS. YEAGER: Some of the things that we have noticed, I mean we sort of categorized these areas. And in particular with judges, you know, we feel that some of the clients misunderstand that they have to rush immediately from, like, an interim or a temporary order all the way to a final protective order rather than having the seven days to prepare for the case. And I think that’s something that we just have to be mindful of, how the judges come across to our clients in presenting that as an option not as an automatic to do. Because our clients can get so much more relief if they do have time to prepare for their case and request what they really need.
MR. MORRIS: The court has the interim protective order. So individuals that are being abused can get protection from the court twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Which is a nice change and, you know, we were fairly slow in the country but we sort of caught up.
But that in fact is where, part of the experience we’re having is that it’s not the same to go to the court commissioner after hours as it is to go to the court during the day. And I think Montgomery is a good example, where during the day we have an awful lot of folks coordinating to help serve the individual who comes to the court. So a judge is available, the court is responsive, we have advocates, attorneys that can work together and help somebody to understand and kind of walk through the process in sort of a fairly understandable and supportive way.
After hours it’s very different. There’s one court commissioner in a very big county. It’s physically inaccessible, and it can be inaccessible other ways. The commissioner is not able to kind of explain it so clearly. It’s difficult to have an advocate available. The physical setting is often intimidating. There’s little or no language resources. Montgomery County has half of the folks in the State that need foreign language assistance, you know, limited English proficiency folks. And so there’s all kinds of, after is, puts people off. It’s very difficult to do and folks even will actually, we hear stories of individuals that come to file and then just leave.
So it’s very difficult to make that equal. And unfortunately, those can often be times when that would be an excellent protection for families.HOUSING & CONSUMER LAW
MR. LEAHY: Another problem where we see a problem is in landlord/tenant, failure to pay rent cases, in which the tenant has been sued because they haven’t paid the rent. And oftentimes it, if they haven’t paid the rent it’s because they’ve lost a job, or there’s been a separation in the family, or a medical, or some other unknown expense, unpredictable expense came up. They can get assistance either through the Department of Social Services or even more likely through a church or some other charitable organization. But they often can’t get that assistance until they actually have an order that orders them to pay a certain amount.
If there’s not a quick way to get that order into the hands of the tenants so that they can get it into the hands of the charitable organizations, so they can run their process to get that payment, you could wind up with a family being homeless. And so we would want to see that, any way that that can be, you know, assisted, or made efficient. Either through the clerks issuing the orders the day of the trial, and the tenant being able to get it the day of the trial, before they leave the courtroom. Something along those lines would be of great help.
There is, I guess, one other thing that I would mention in, particularly for unrepresented clients in cases where rent is owed. Or perhaps it’s a collection case where a sum of money is owed on a loan or a credit card or something along those lines. We have heard from some of our clients that sometimes the clerks will say, “Well, if you owe the money then you don’t have to come to court because a judgment is going to be rendered against you anyway if you say you don’t have a defense.” If they ask, well, you know, if the client says, “I don’t have a defense, I guess I owe it,” they will tell them, “well, if you don’t own it, you don’t have to come to court.”
Well, if they don’t come to court a judgment will automatically be rendered against them. But there may be things that, they may have some defenses, or at least some legal issues that they can raise, or that could be raised if they went to court, that they may not be completely aware of. We always advise, always advise our clients, “If you have been sued, you should go to court. You should go to court on the day of the trial.” If it’s a landlord/tenant case, “Maybe there are issues that you don’t know of that will come up that the court may ask about, and you may ask the judge about, that turns out to be something of very significance. Even if it’s just, “Can I have more time before I have to move out?” If it’s that small.
On a collection case, well the creditor has the obligation to prove that they owe, that the person owes what they are claiming they owe. That the fees and the interest is all calculated correctly. Sometimes these notes are sold to several different kinds of creditors down the line, and then the creditor who sued doesn’t have the paper to show that this person is actually the person who made the debt.
And so those are the kinds of things that I think the clerks would just be better served by saying, “If you’ve been sued, come to court.”
MS. GOLDBERG: One of the primary legal challenges that seniors face in the court system is with consumer cases, and in particular with garnishment of their bank accounts. Clients get judgments against them and then their accounts are frozen, even when those accounts just contain social security and pension funds that are exempt. And what we do is try to help them with filing motions to exempt funds. And that process can be too lengthy, and can really harm the clients.
POVERTY AS A BARRIER TO JUSTICE
DR. SOKOLOFF: I would like to see the courts be far better able to deal with civil matters, providing resources for people, which are not considered important. Our country says that if it’s a criminal case then that will be given some kind of counsel. But in civil cases, which may be just as devastating for somebody, those kinds of resources are not available. And they must be, is what my position would be.
MR. LEAHY: The major barriers that I think my clients, who are low income Marylanders, face is just a lack of access to lawyers. They don’t get lawyers to represent them in cases. We cover four counties. And we’ve opened over 550 cases, about sixty a month, just in calendar year 2009, from January to September 30th. But we’re only seeing about 20 percent at most of the need that’s out there based on our own and other studies. So there’s vast, just huge amounts of people, and especially in domestic cases, perhaps in some housing kinds of cases, where really fundamental problems, or really fundamental issues to their lives, don’t get the assistance of an attorney. And if that could be addressed, either through a Civil Gideon, where the courts will actually appoint lawyers for people who have major legal issues in their lives, or some other mechanism, increased funding for the programs that are already out there, that would go a large, large way towards assisting our clients.
MR. GERALDO: I think the biggest is the financial. And I really believe that in order to address the unmet legal needs of the low and moderate that there has to be a consistent funding source. And that funding source has to be the government. Because there are so many hidden costs when litigants go into court unrepresented. They face consequences. And a lot of the costs of those are hidden costs. And what happens is people get evicted, and then you have a host of issues that come from that.
For example, there are a host of issues that arose as a result of the mortgage foreclosure. And until the Legislature, the Governor, and the courts began to address that problem it was getting worse. People were being put out of their houses without notice. And so, and that brings a host of problems. That brings homelessness, that brings education issues. So it’s important that litigants have an attorney and that the justice system that we have in this country is one that I’ve always believed is to be for all people.
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