Hawaiʻi Has a Leadership Role Nationally in Seeking Access to Justice for the Underserved

June 21, 2013

Law Dean Avi Soifer addresses the final session of the day-long Access To Justice Conference on Friday, with panelists, from left, Jill Hasegawa,  Hawai‘i Supreme Court Associate Justice Simeon R. Acoba,  Judge Daniel R. Foley, and Hawai‘i Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald.

A record number of almost 300 leading proponents of legal services and social justice-oriented law in Hawai‘i met at the William S. Richardson School of Law this week to consider access to justice issues and to plan to better serve those whose needs for legal services are not being met.

That’s estimated to be one in every five moderate or low-income people in Hawai’i.

The 2013 “Access to Justice Conference” held Friday at the Law School brought together lawmakers, judges, and a wide range of private practice attorneys around the theme “And Justice for All?” Large group sessions in the morning were followed by concurrent sessions in the afternoon that included continuing legal education for attorneys and community advocates.

The plenary speech by Mark Recktenwald, Chief Justice of the Hawai'i Supreme Court, analyzed recent achievements by the Hawai'i Access to Justice Commission, which was chartered by the rules of the Hawai'i Supreme Court.  Raising the question, “What does justice look like?” C.J. Recktenwald noted that self-help centers set up across the state allow litigants to work with pro bono attorneys to navigate the procedural paths of the legal process.

It is “critical to keep this energy and momentum going,” Recktenwald said, because the centers are making a real difference in the communities they serve by “[narrowing] the gap between the ideal and the reality of providing justice for all.”

Recktenwald and Associate Justice Simeon R. Acoba Jr. recently joined other access to justice advocates from around the country at a White House conference offering strategies to make improvements. Recktenwald was struck by how advanced Hawai‘i’s Commission is compared to those in other states.

“Ours really stands out because of the passion of the people involved,” he said. “Here we have a grass-roots effort.” In fact, Recktenwald pointed out, the Commission recently received a grant to enhance language access for non-English speakers involved in the court system.

Panelists Jocelyn Howard, Dina Shek and Joakim Peter discuss issues regarding Micronesians and their access to justice in Hawai‘i.
The Pacific Island groups often suffer discrimination, according to the panelists who all work to ease issues.

Following the plenary speech, a panel of legal service providers gave some context for the challenges of both the people who seek access to justice and the organizations mandated to help them.  The three panelists were Nalanai Fujimori Kaina, Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Hawai'i; L. Dew Kaneshiro, Executive Director of Volunteer Services Hawai'i; and Nanci Kreidman, Founder and Chief Executive of the Domestic Violence Action Center.

All three touched on the problems that unstable public funding creates for legal service providers.  Another challenge faced they identified is the uphill battle of educating the wider community about the crucial nature of the work involved that requires, in Kreidman's words, “[lifting] up the community's understanding of justice.”

The powerful keynote address was given by Charles R. Lawrence, III, Centennial Professor of Law at the Richardson Law School. Entitled “Sustaining the Struggle for Justice: Remembering and Renewing Abolitionist Advocacy”, Lawrence used literature and history in his moving consideration of “What have we forgotten or unlearned about justice?”  Stating that “every important truth is taught and learned,” Lawrence reflected on his generation’s experiences as young lawyers, including his own civil rights work in the South, to explain how he teaches current students to perceive injustice, and then to think creatively about “making that story part of the law's text.”

State Representatives Karl Rhoads and Jessica Wooley, and Senator Clayton Hee constituted a panel moderated by Law School Dean Avi Soifer, which considered the role of money and lobbying in legislation pertaining to access to justice.  Fielding a series of audience questions, the three lawmakers discussed the challenges they face in passing legislation that effectively provides services and enhances justice to underserved communities.  While State Senator Hee noted that advocacy “is not magical,” he and Representatives Wooley and Rhoads emphasized the need for adequate organization, consistent messaging, and the need to build broad coalitions around the issue at hand.  While acknowledging the limitations of the legislative process with regard to allowing full participation by different parts of the electorate, each panelist reiterated the ability of community members and organizations to influence public policy. 

Two rounds of afternoon panel discussions focused more deeply on specific areas raised throughout the morning, including looking at restorative justice in civil cases, access to justice issues for the Micronesian community, new uses of technology in serving clients,, and access issues in family court.

Two members of the Micronesian community, both studying for advanced degrees at the University of Hawai‘i, spoke about the intense levels of racism, prejudice and discrimination this recent immigrant group faces, and how that might be tempered with greater understanding of the historical background. Joakim Peter, who is working toward a doctorate in the College of Education, described an undercurrent of animosity toward the Micronesian community as “racial noise” in which everyone is complicit, from government officials to politicians to those in the legal system, as well as teachers in the schools.

“We are so quick to be anti-immigrant,” said Peter, “we forget this whole country was built on the back of immigration.”

Peter noted that if the Hawai‘i community better understood the history of destruction in the Pacific leading to Micronesians moving to Hawai‘i in search of better education and health care, perhaps there would be a different attitude.

Dina Shek, a Richardson graduate who founded the Medical Legal Partnership for Children at the Kokua Kalihi Valley Community Health Center that offers free legal services for immigrants, noted that there is a growing sense of strength and organization within the Micronesian community and a new willingness to push Congress to reinstate health benefits promised by the Compact of Free Association. Both U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono are supporting legislation to achieve that promise, said Peter.

After a brief break, a second round of panel discussions delved into the delivery of legal services through limited scope representation, the role of mediation in access to justice arenas, language access for clients with limited English proficiency, and responses to legal problems faced by veterans.

Retired Judge Joel August emphasized the role of mediation within the judicial system to offer both a quicker and less expensive resolution of cases. In a dramatic aside, he told the touching story of the life-saving actions of attorney Loretta Sheehan, who sprang into action to save a client’s life during a mediation session when the woman collapsed and stopped breathing. As the men in the room gasped, noted August, Sheehan started immediate CPR, saving her client’s life.

The conference was co-sponsored by the Hawai‘i Access to Justice Commission, the William S. Richardson School of Law, the Hawai‘i Justice Foundation, and the Hawai‘i State Bar Association.

In reflecting on the importance of the conference, Dean Soifer said such an event is an important example of the Law School’s mission to be deeply involved in seeking justice in practical terms and in supporting endeavors that undertake that challenge and move forward in that unending quest.

“We are proud to have hosted this conference every year, and to have our graduates, students, and friends so deeply involved in making law more accessible and more just for our most vulnerable neighbors,” said Dean Soifer. “Law School staff members go far beyond the call of duty to help make this gathering such a success every year.”