Speeches

Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor
Help Center of Hamilton County Municipal Court Grand Opening & Dedication
Sept. 25, 2017

Thank you, Aftab (Pureval).

Greetings, Judge (Brad) Greenberg, Commissioners (Todd) Portune and (Denise) Driehaus and Dean (Verna) Williams and Professor (Marianna) Bettman.

And good morning, everyone.

This is an exciting moment – certainly for Cincinnati and Hamilton County -- but also for our nation.

By opening this Help Center, you are giving valuable direction to cities and counties across America.

You are practicing leadership in the realm of Access to Justice.

You are addressing a growing need in our society --  working together to strengthen our justice system by making it available to the economically disadvantaged.

You all get a big A – an A for Access.

A key aspect of this center is staffing by competent legal professionals.

The public officials here and the task force of community leaders avoided a trap that can snare the well-intentioned.

That trap is the assumption that technology alone can solve Access to Justice problems.

That an app or a kiosk can open the doors of justice for our less-fortunate neighbors.

In our most recent round of funding, the Supreme Court of Ohio awarded more than $2.8 million in technology grants to 62 courts in 42 counties.

Our Court is pro-technology. But you wisely understood that technology is a tool -- and that when it comes to administering justice there is no substitute for:

Human intervention.

Human understanding.

Human compassion.

There is no substitute for knowledge of the ways of the legal system – and the dissemination of that knowledge to our fellow citizens.

I was happy to learn that this Help Center will have an attorney-director, Robert Wall, and that law student volunteers from the U-C and Chase law schools, and pro bono attorneys from the community, will work here.

Small claims, evictions, landlord-tenant issues … these can pose monumental problems for the poor.

Lack of money to hire a lawyer is a huge problem in our state. More than 2.8 million Ohioans qualify economically for civil legal aid services.

That’s 20 percent of our state population.

But another major problem that this Help Center will tackle directly is time.

With knowledgeable staff available, clients will be able to slash the time it takes to address their legal problems. For the less-fortunate, that can mean avoiding time off from work – avoiding loss of wages -- or even the loss of a job.

The justice system – in both civil and criminal matters -- can become a costly merry-go-round for people struggling to make ends meet.

One aspect of our nation’s “Justice Gap” involves fines, fees and court costs – all of which can accumulate and lead to personal bankruptcies – and, too often, jail time -- when defendants cannot pay.

We -- as public officials, especially those of us in the judiciary -- have a responsibility to ensure that the criminal justice system and the system of civil justice are perceived by the public as fair and equitable – and that they operate in a fair and equitable manner.

The report of the Task Force on Access to Justice was issued two years ago. It recommended the type of Help Center we are dedicating.

Since the report was issued, judges and justices across the country have been working on the access issue.

We’ve only begun to make a dent in the problem. But having acknowledged that, I can say that Access to Justice has received national attention – and could even be called a movement.

In 2015, The Conference of Chief Justices together with the Conference of State Court Administrators, formed a National Task Force on Fines, Fees and Bail Practices to address the impact these financial obligations have on economically disadvantaged communities.

The National Center for State Courts now houses the Center on Court Access to Justice for All. This organization helps judges and courts advance Access to Justice, especially for the poor, by offering resources on 15 strategies, and technical assistance. 

It works closely with the Conference of Chief Justices, the Conference of State Court Administrators and other national court organizations to implement Access-to-Justice solutions.

Lots of hands are on deck, making things happen. When I look around here I see capable hands – of dedicated people ready to get to work solving problems.

I want to thank:

The Cincinnati Bar Association

The Cincinnati Bar Foundation

The Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati

The U-C College of Law and the Chase College of Law

The Clerk of Courts

The County Commissioners

And the many local law firms that will be giving pro bono hours to the efforts here.

And a special thanks and recognition to former judge and retired UC professor, Marianna Bettman who led the task force of community leaders who worked on launching this center.

Our system of justice is unparalleled in the world. Our system of county and state courts is unique and unrivaled.

But when our institutions and the rule of law are available only to those who can afford it, we have failed.

In this courthouse today, we are pointed in the direction of success.

I’m proud to stand among you today to celebrate this opening.

Thanks to all of your for your hard work – and, more important – your dedication to the issue of Access to Justice.

May God Bless.