In 2005, 2008, 2011, 2014, and 2019 the Commission surveyed circuit judges. It asked them to describe and quantify the issues they encountered with self-represented litigants and to suggest ways to bring greater efficiencies into the civil justice system. Based on feedback from these surveys, the Commission promotes free online legal resourcesfor low-income Arkansans, including automated documents for simple legal matters and is developing resources for judges and court staff to support them in addressing the needs of the self-help public.
In 2005, the Commission worked with Senator Paul Miller to secure state funding for legal aid. Act 1893, which established the Public Legal Aid Fund and increased the civil case reopening fee by $20, generates $342,000 annually for legal aid.
In 2005, the Commission supported the revision of Arkansas Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1; The rule now encourages a goal of 50 hours of pro bono work per year for each attorney, and it suggests a contribution level in addition to volunteering. It also clarifies the types of clients, cases, and other legal work that qualifies as pro bono work.
In 2006, the Commission held town hall meetings in each of the state’s four congressional districts. Each U.S. representative attended his district’s meeting. These gatherings allowed attorneys, judges, agency heads, clients, and the public to express their ideas and opinions about access to the civil justice system. Because of these meetings, for the first time in 2006, all four Arkansas members of Congress voted to increase the level of funding for the Legal Services Corporation.
In 2006, the Commission produced “Forging the Road to Civil Justice,” a DVD used to educate the justice community and public. It begins with Justice Annabelle Clinton Imber of the Arkansas Supreme Court detailing the need for civil justice in the state. It also features three client stories that focus on the work done by legal aid attorneys and pro bono volunteers. Commissioners and legal aid managers show this DVD during speaking engagements across the state.
In 2009, the Commission succeeded in second legislative effort to help fund legal aid. Act 475 of 2009, which was sponsored by Sen. Robert Thompson and Rep. Steve Harrelson, has succeeded in bringing in an additional $513,000 annually to legal aid through a $10 increase in the circuit court filing fee.
In 2009, the Commission conducted Arkansas’s first-ever statewide fundraising campaign, which raised almost $300,000 for the two legal aid providers in our state. The effort is now an annual campaign that raises between $200,000 and $300,000 each year to support the provision of free legal services to low-income Arkansans.
In 2009, the Commission hosted its first statewide conference, the “Promise of Justice Conference.” Attendees heard presentations about the need for equal access to civil legal services in Arkansas. They also divided into groups and discussed problems that low-income Arkansans face in the areas of family, consumer, housing, and public benefits law, as well as possible solutions to those problems.
In 2010, the Commission petitioned the Arkansas Supreme Court to permit attorneys licensed in other states to provide pro bono services in Arkansas. In March of 2011, the Court granted the petition by adopting Administrative Order No. 15.2, which now permits non-admitted attorneys–including in-house counsel–to provide pro bono services to Arkansans of limited means under the sponsorship of a legal aid organization.
In 2011, the Commission partnered with the Clinton School of Public Service on a project that undertook the first-ever attempt to evaluate the scale and impact of pro se litigation in Arkansas. The study concluded that the numbers of self-represented litigants in Arkansas has steadily increased in recent years, that self-representation has had a negative effect on the efficiency of court operations and on case outcomes, and that a majority of judges believe that self-help resources currently available through Arkansas’s legal aid providers are beneficial to both courts and self-represented litigants.
In 2012, the Commission received $2 million as part of a multi-state settlement with five of the country’s largest banks over allegations related to abuses in the mortgage finance industry. The funds, which were secured by Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, are currently managed by the Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation and serve as the source of grant funding for a legal-aid based housing program that assists Arkansans affected by the housing crisis in protecting their rights.
The Commission also partnered with the William H. Bowen School of Law and Clinton School of Public Service in 2012 to convene 150 representatives of the legal, medical, education, business, government, and nonprofit sectors as part of a statewide conference geared toward developing strategies for how the legal system can address issues that perpetuate poverty. The conference featured retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens as its keynote speaker.
In 2013, the Commission completed an assessment of the needs of self-represented litigants and completed a strategic plan for the delivery of legal services to underserved populations in the state. The Commission has since created a Task Force on Self-Represented Litigants that is overeeing implementation of the plan.
The Commission partnered in 2014 with the Clinton School of Public Service to conduct a study on the economic impact of civil legal aid in Arkansas. Researchers concluded that civil legal aid likely generates more than $32 million in positive economic activity in the state each year.
In 2015, the Commission co-sponsored a symposium on access to justice with the UALR Law Review. Topics included civil right to counsel, a vision for 100% access, rural access, and rethinking justice outreach. The full issue can be found here.
During National Pro Bono Week 2015, the Commission and Arkansas Supreme Court co-hosted a hearing of the Arkansas General Assembly’s Joint Judiciary Committee on the justice gap in Arkansas and how legal aid is helping.
In a November 2015 order, the Arkansas Supreme Court adopted a proposed a change to the state’s IOLTA rule to provide for unclaimed and unidentifiable client trust funds to be paid to the Foundation to support grants for legal aid. The Commission and its sister Foundation drafted the proposal.
The Commission adopted a package of proposed rule changes in 2015 to promote limited scope representation. The proposed changes to the rules of ethics were then recommended by the Arkansas Bar Association’s Professional Ethics Committee, which petitioned the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2016 for their adoption.
In 2016, the Arkansas Supreme Court also adopted modifications to Rule 2.2 of the Judicial Code of Conduct that the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission proposed in an effort to provide guidance on the kinds of accommodations that judges may ethically make to ensure that all litigants, including self-represented litigants, have a fair opportunity to be heard.
The Commission launched a new project in 2016, AR.FreeLegalAnswers.org, which is an online legal advice resource for low-income Arkansans to ask questions and receive advice from an attorney on non-criminal legal matters. The program is administered by the Commission and staffed by pro bono volunteers.
In early 2017, the Commission partnered with the American Bar Association to conduct a survey of attorneys statewide regarding the reasons they do pro bono, the barriers to doing so, and what would motivate them to do more. As a result, the Commission has proposed for the Arkansas Supreme Court’s adoption a rule that would allow attorneys to earn CLE credit for performing pro bono service, and it is currently exploring the possibility of proposing an emeritus rule for retired or inactive attorneys who wish to provide pro bono services.
The Commission partnered with the Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation in 2017 to create an endowment fund at the Arkansas Community Foundation for the benefit of the legal aid programs. The initial campaign raised more than $100,000 to establish the fund.
In 2018, the Commission hosted its first unbundling symposium to further promote the practice of limited scope representation. The conference was attended by more than 100 attorneys.
In 2018, the Arkansas Supreme Court adopted a modification to the In Forma Pauperis rule in 2018 that explicitly allows fee waivers for indigent petitioners whose cases involve non-adversarial matters, such as name changes, uncontested adoptions, uncontested guardianships, and small estates. The Commission sought this modification because the original rule unintended effect of arbitrarily denying indigent litigants relief in certain types of cases simply because there was no adverse party.
The Arkansas Supreme Court adopted its first ever Judicial Branch Strategic Plan in 2018, which included Access to Justice as a major component. The plan’s recommendations include items recommended by the Commission as part of a comprehensive plan for addressing the needs of self-represented litigants.