In 2016, the National Center for Access to Justice ranked South Carolina last out of all states in access to civil legal assistance. Following that report, a variety of legal experts began the laborious task of researching what barriers existed and why. Among them was Elizabeth Chambliss, Henry Harman Edens Professor of Law and Director of the law school’s Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough Center on Professionalism.
“That's my main focus of my current work,” Chambliss says. “Trying to improve the civil justice system in South Carolina.”
To that end, she has partnered with many organizations over the years to evaluate South Carolinians' ability to get the help they need when they need it. Most recently, through the NMRS Center, she partnered with the SC Bar and SC Access to Justice Commission to fund the first-ever statewide civil legal needs assessment.
Featuring qualitative and quantitative data, the assessment presents the results of six years of data from state civil courts, interviews with legal aid providers, surveys of lawyers and South Carolina residents, and 14 focus groups throughout the state, detailing people’s experiences handling civil legal problems with and without lawyers.
Some of the results were unsurprising, like the fact that housing and family law were the areas of greatest need or that most parties in civil court are unrepresented. Some results were less expected, such as how many people were generally satisfied with the lawyers they used.
“One thing that struck me in hearing peoples’ stories is that it’s not just the outcome of the case that matters,” Chambliss says. “Even where there wasn’t a good outcome, the feeling of being respected and heard and taken seriously was important to people.”
Now that the assessment is available, Chambliss hopes to strengthen existing partnerships among legal services providers in the state and create sustained momentum with follow-ups and measurable progress.
“We wanted to start a conversation – and bring together the many conversations that were already happening – about how to improve access to civil legal assistance in South Carolina,” Chambliss says. “The goal now is to identify priorities and build coalitions for implementing positive change.”
There are many reasons to improve access and, for Chambliss, it’s at the heart of professional service.
“It’s our public and professional duty to do a better job providing these services because they really can be life changing,” Chambliss says. “Sometimes a little assistance goes a long way.”