Iowa Supreme Court says low-income Iowans deserve justice, but plans to do very little to help them

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Justice in Iowa is too expensive for almost half of the state’s population, according to a new report published by the Iowa Supreme Court. The report by the court’s Access to Justice Commission estimates 1.5 million Iowans may not be able afford to properly defend or assert their legal rights in civil courts. Many can’t afford even minimal legal help in such vital matters as disputes with their landlords that could lead to eviction or securing child support payments.

The commission describes this situation as a “justice gap,” and quotes the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s belief that “it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status.”

So what does the commission purpose to do about this situation? Almost nothing.

The commission recommends finding ways to encourage lawyers to do more pro bono work, although it doesn’t offer much in the way of concrete suggestions beyond allowing lawyers to receive continuing legal education (CLE) credits for pro bono work in rural areas. What the report doesn’t mention, but lawyers reluctant to do pro bono work must already know, is that only 15 hours of CLE each year is all a lawyer needs to satisfy the CLE requirement imposed by the Iowa Supreme Court.

In addition to suggestions about free legal representation, the report also contains vague suggestions regarding low-cost representation, referred to by the faux Latin term “low bono.”

“Low bono practices are designed to provide legal services to those who cannot pay prevailing ordinary hourly rates for lawyers but do have sufficient resources to make significant payments for legal services,” the report explains. But even if more lawyers do embrace low bono work (presumably out of the goodness of their lawyerly hearts, which the commission seems to be relying on), the report’s suggested hourly rate of $100 may well prove daunting to many cash-strapped Iowans, making legal assistance no more accessible than it is now.

The commission also believes improved technology may take the place of unaffordable lawyers for basic legal services for low-income individuals. The reports suggests developing standardized online legal forms written in plain English that can be easily filled in and e-filed. “Think Turbo Tax!” the report enthuses in a parenthetical aside. The report does not, however, explain where the money will come from to create these forms.

The report largely avoids the topic of providing more money to ensure everyone has access to justice. It notes in passing “the Commission does not have substantial funds to assist” organizations that provide legal services to low-income Iowans, like Iowa Legal Aid.

The report warns that the Iowa legislature can’t be relied on to provide funds to close the justice gap. It explains that although raising the rates paid to court-appointed lawyers has been a top priority for the Iowa State Bar Association (ISBA) for several years, the association has made no progress persuading legislators to do so. The ISBA also can’t get the legislature to require the State Public Defender’s Office to cover travel expenses for lawyers representing indigent defendants. “With the budgetary lean times ahead, it is not anticipated that there will be ‘state money’ for the foreseeable future,” the report predicts.

It’s also unlikely the Iowa Supreme Court will do anything to provide money to close the justice gap. In 2015, the court rejected a proposal to impose a $100 fee on Iowa-licensed lawyers to provide funds to support organizations like Iowa Legal Aid. The court also rejected a voluntary version of the fee.

The report says the commission will continue its work, and its recommendations, such as they are, “can be accomplished in a relatively short period of time.”

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