The public thinks there are two American systems of justice, one for the rich and one for the poor, the chief justice of Florida’s Supreme Court said last week during Jacksonville Area Legal Aid’s Equal Justice Reception. Barbara Pariente then challenged the room to go out and prove that perception wrong.
Pariente conceded that her admonition amounted to “preaching to the choir.” The crowd assembled at The River Club Tuesday evening included some of Jacksonville’s most giving attorneys both in terms of money and pro bono hours. The annual Equal Justice Reception honors the attorneys and firms that do the most to further JALA’s mission of providing legal services to the poor.
But despite those contributions, the gap is widening between the level of legal service provided to America’s wealthiest citizens and what the rest of the country can afford, said Pariente.
“It’s not just low-income people any more that can’t afford meaningful access to the courts,” said Pariente. “It’s middle-income people as well. We have got to do more.”
That means more lawyers following the Supreme Court’s recommendation of a $350 annual contribution to groups like JALA, said Pariente. Right now, fewer than one in five attorneys meet that standard.
“We call $350 the ‘buyout amount,’” said Pariente. “Really, is there any attorney at a reasonably-sized firm where $350 amounts to more than one hour of billing?”
Pariente also wants attorneys who work pro bono hours to focus more of their energy on helping the poor. Organizations like JALA are severely understaffed, she said. For every 6,861 low-income Florida citizens, there’s one Legal Aid attorney, she said.
Pariente noted that, while charitable giving is at an all-time high nationwide, less of that money is directed toward the poor. That’s a trend she sees in Florida’s legal community as well. Although any kind of giving should be recognized, contributions to the poor are needed most, she said.
“Providing pro bono services to a hospital or a museum is not the same as providing services to an organization that serves the poor,” she said.