Everday citizens study Bar issues

first_img January 15, 2005 Senior Editor Regular News Everday citizens study Bar issues Gary Blankenship Senior Editor A cross section of Floridians is sitting in a hotel conference room, arrayed around a square of tables, listening intently.They include a director of a domestic abuse prevention agency, a neuropsychologist, a banking vice president, a retired FBI agent, and a court reporter. Being presented is a review of the Bar’s current advertising regulations by Bar Ethics Counsel Elizabeth Tarbert and tentative rule changes suggested by the Advertising Task Force 2004 by Chair Manny Morales.The presentations are followed by a spirited question-and-answer session, lively discussion, and then some pointed suggestions.The December 9 meeting was what is getting to be a typical meeting for The Florida Bar’s Citizens Forum, a group of mostly nonlawyers that is both playing a larger role in Bar issues and winning praise for its work.According to its mission statement, the forum is to “provide a vehicle for two-way communication between Florida’s major citizen constituencies and The Florida Bar to inform and educate the public about significant legal-justice issues and to gain public understanding and support.”In effect, the group is both a sounding board and a focus group on issues affecting the legal profession. Its work has won high praise from Bar leaders and Board of Governors, and a major effort of the Communications Committee this year is to involve the forum in more Bar issues.“I can’t say enough about the Citizens Forum,” board member Henry Latimer commented at the December Communications Committee meeting. “I think they give us very valuable insight.”The December gathering, held in conjunction with the Bar Board of Governors meeting, focused on lawyer advertising issues. In October, the forum studied the legal needs of children, particularly those related to domestic violence. In the past it has tackled such diverse topics as merit selection and retention of trial judges and the image of the legal profession.In many ways, the forum discussion on advertising mirrored debates held at the Board of Governors meetings and other venues on the difficulties and frustrations of balancing free speech rights with advertising regulations. But the forum did reach some definite conclusions — along with fulfilling their role of providing an independent, nonlegal eye on Bar issues.“The two primary things that any regulation of advertising needs to do is, number one, protect the consumers of the state and, number two, to do what the Bar can to enhance the image of the profession,” said John Biesinger, a vice president with Wachovia Trust. “To me, simplicity should rule. Lawyers are really good about over-regulating and over-defining, but many lawyers aren’t even looking at what we’ve got on the books today.”He and other members advocated that the Bar should set those principles, reduce the number of rules, and create an enforcement committee empowered to level steep penalties for violators.Members stuck to that view even though Morales said such a scheme might have trouble passing constitutional muster. “Here’s what I’m hearing: We want to have less rules that are more general in nature, but on the other hand we’re going to say if you degrade the profession, we want you disbarred,” he said. “I don’t know how we enforce that.”But task force members continued to insist they saw such simplification as important.They also had two other recommendations. One was to reach out to law students and educate them about the importance of ethical advertising.The second was that attorney Web sites should be regulated the same as other forms of advertising. The advertising task force has made a preliminary recommendation that Web sites be treated as information provided at the request of a potential client. That exempts them from most ad regulations, except general rules that the information must not be false, misleading, or deceptive.Task force members, though, said they see Web sites as high-tech Yellow Pages and that regulations should be the same.“Web sites are almost exclusively the way some people get information,” said Roddie Bailey, a real estate developer from Panama City. “It’s not difficult to type in www.pitbull.com and see that Web site. I suggest you make the rules uniform across the medium.”That also illustrated the importance of keeping rules simple because technology will bring new ways of marketing. “I don’t think the speed at which the Bar can regulate is fast enough to keep up with the things that will be coming to us,” Biesinger said. “The bottom line. . . is simplicity. The easier the Bar makes what’s right and what’s wrong, the easier it will make the regulating of something that is increasingly getting out of control.”The forum’s tentative conclusions were presented to the Board of Governors the next day, when it received a detailed report from Morales on the task force’s preliminary recommendations. (See story, page 1 . ) The task force will receive a report of the forum’s conclusions as part of its input process.Aside from advertising, members also put the finishing touches on their recommendations on the legal needs of children. Those were presented to the Communications Committee, which in turn sent them to the Committee on the Legal Needs of Children for consideration.The forum made several findings and recommendations, including:• Every child in the legal system should have a lawyer/legal counsel.• The Florida Bar should recognize that children not only may be direct victims of abuse but can be witnesses to abuse and that, in both situations, they have unique needs.• The majority of cases involving abuse are complex and last a long period of time. It is difficult for lawyers in active practice to take on such cases pro bono. The lawyers best suited to handle these cases are employed by legal aid organizations. Legal aid organizations need more funding in order to hire more lawyers.• The Florida Bar should study loopholes in F.S. 787.03 which adversely affect the children and mothers/women who are victims of abuse.• There is a problem with domestic abuse among immigrants. A joint effort between immigration lawyers and family lawyers — i.e., providing education for volunteer lawyers or others involved in the cases — would be beneficial. The Florida Bar should facilitate a joint effort between relevant sections in this regard.• The Florida Bar should take the lead in the provision of education/training regarding children’s legal issues including domestic violence; notably, law students, guardians ad litem, and judges need additional (nonlegal) training/education regarding domestic abuse situations.• The Florida Bar should study and consider support of the Palm Beach County model of one judge/one family.• The Florida Bar should prioritize the recommendation of the Commission on the Legal Needs of Children that would amend F.S. Chapters 39, 61, 984, and 985 to authorize information sharing among courts handling cases involving custody, delinquency, truancy, child abuse, and neglect.• Further, the Citizens Forum supports all recommendations of the commission regarding technology and the courts, particularly supporting “A Model Family Court for Florida” as the blueprint for a unified family court and improved technology between the courts and executive agencies working with families (must be a legislative priority).• The Florida Bar should prioritize and take the lead in enacting the commission’s recommendation to create local interdisciplinary groups of social service, psychology, medical, and legal experts.• The Florida Bar should prioritize the commission’s recommendation that Florida should develop a statewide comprehensive system and structure for children’s representation.• In domestic violence abuse cases, The Florida Bar should consider ways to ensure cooperation of the attorney for the child and the attorney for the protective parent.• The Florida Bar should study the need for any revisions to current statutes to ensure that children in domestic violence/abuse cases not be removed from the protective parent. 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