Chief justice: Turn law libraries to legal self-help centers

The state needs to do more to help people who can’t pay for lawyers, and to aid the mental health of lawyers and judges, the chief justice of Georgia’s Supreme Court said Wednesday.

In a State of the Judiciary address to the General Assembly, Chief Justice Harold Melton also hailed retiring Associate Justice Robert Benham, the first African American to serve on the state’s high court.

“He is the father of the modern court – a court that is truly dedicated to the principle that all men and all women are equal, and all stand equal in the eyes of the law,” said Melton, who is also African American.

The chief justice lauded the use of alternative courts, noting 2,112 people appeared in mental health courts in 2019. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has proposed cuts to court spending.

“For every one dollar invested in a mental health court in Georgia, there is a savings of six dollars and three cents,” Melton said.

As the state focuses on criminal gangs, Melton said, efforts should be made to identify young people at risk and to steer them “in a different direction.” He cited a Fulton County effort to provide extensive support to juveniles who have committed multiple nonviolent offenses.

Melton said he wants to turn county law libraries into legal self-help centers across the state. Lawyers once relied on those libraries for research, but most now do their research online. Georgia spends some money providing civil lawyers to people who can’t pay, and the judiciary asked for $375,000 more in the coming year’s budget. But it’s not enough to help 1 million Georgians representing themselves in civil matters.

“We must continue to do better to ensure that all Georgia citizens, rich and poor, have access to justice,” Melton said. “Our legal system is an adversarial system: People win and lose,” Melton said. “Citizens who represent themselves more often lose.”

Melton noted that the model is already working in the city of Albany, where the Dougherty County self-help center aids 40 litigants per day. Fulton County is unveiling a Justice Resource Center that will include how-to videos on handling common legal issues, assistance with forms, translation services and appointments with legal aid lawyers. The center will also include a protected area for victims of domestic and elder abuse.

A survey of judges found people who used the self-help center took up less court time and resources, Melton said.

Melton also mentioned a suicide awareness event to be convened in April and moderated by Sally Yates, formerly deputy U.S. attorney general. Yates’ father, longtime Georgia Court of Appeals Judge John Kelley Quillian, died by suicide in 1984. Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Goss died by suicide in August.

“We are often not healthy ourselves,” Melton said.