Access to Justice Commission
In 1995, P. Nathan Bowles, then-president of the Legal Aid Society of Charleston, said, “The phrase ‘Equal Justice for All’ should not be an empty one. Our country has a government and a legal system grounded on the legal importance of every citizen. . . . No one is above the law; but we must also ensure that no one is beneath the law.”
Several years later, the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia’s Commission on the Future of the Judiciary noted in its Final Report an “enormous need” for civil legal representation for West Virginians with limited incomes. In the years after that report, the West Virginia State Bar, Legal Aid of West Virginia and a number of other programs and individuals labored against increasing obstacles to serve state residents of poor and moderate means. Declining funding, geographic realities, and a myriad of other problems contributed to the difficulties of serving those needs.
During Justice Brent D. Benjamin’s year as Chief Justice in 2009, he dedicated his office to the creation and maintenance of a formal Access to Justice Program for our state. A commission was established. In the summer of 2011, the commission began holding public forums around West Virginia to assess the needs of citizens in accessing the justice system.
The 2009 Supreme Court Administrative Order establishing the commission is available to view here.
Task Forces, Committees, and Projects that preceded the Access to Justice Commission
Commission on the Future of the WV Judiciary
This commission was created at the direction of Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman, and worked toward improving public trust and confidence in the West Virginia court system. The commission conducted a system-wide review and made a quality improvement plan for the state court system. On December 1, 1998, the commission presented its Final Report to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia. The report contains more than 120 recommendations for judicial reform.
Ten years ago, the commission sent attendees to a national conference on Public Trust and Confidence in the Judiciary, and they returned with numerous recommendations for West Virginia's court system. The following paragraphs summarize and describe some of the still-existing court initiatives that resulted from this original commission.
Committee on Equality in the West Virginia Judiciary
Originally the Task Force on Gender Fairness, this committee investigated the extent to which gender bias exists in the judiciary and its effect on participants; documented instances of discrimination; and developed educational programs designed to eliminate bias. The original Task Force submitted its Final Report to the Court in 1996.
Task Force on Self-Represented Litigants
The Court created the Task Force on Self-Represented Litigants in 1999 in response to the Commission's recommendation that pro se (self-represented) litigants are ensured access to justice. The Special Projects Division hopes to revive this decade-old task force as the Pro Se Representation Subcommittee of the Access to Justice Commission.
Task Force to Study Perceived Racial Disparity in the Juvenile Justice System
Responding to a petition filed with the Court in 2001, the WVSCA created a task force to respond to statistics demonstrating West Virginia's place in the national problem of disproportionate minority contact with the juvenile justice system. The task force researched the extent of such contact in West Virginia and identified some of its potential causes and then conducted town meetings throughout the state to receive public comments regarding the perception of racial disparity in the court system. The Special Projects Division completed the interim report on the activities of the task force in October, 2007, and has received confirmation that many of the previous task force members will continue to serve under the auspices of the Access to Justice Commission.