Atty Wellness Among NJ High Court's Equal Justice Initiatives

By George Woolston | September 7, 2023, 3:43 PM EDT ·

The New Jersey Supreme Court has outlined new initiatives to ensure access to justice for people of color and other historically marginalized groups, including expanding efforts to support wellness for law professionals and leveraging technology to improve notice of and access to court language services.

The nine new initiatives announced Wednesday are part of the fourth installment of the high court's annual Action Plan for Ensuring Equal Justice report, first issued in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd. In addition to outlining the new areas for reform, it provides an update on the areas for reform the Supreme Court focused on in 2022.

The high court this coming year will look to provide the state's law professionals with strategies to prevent mental health issues, substance use and self-harm. It will also work to make sure all those who engage with the state's judicial system and need interpreting services receive such support from the outset of their court involvement.

"Through the Action Plan, the New Jersey Supreme Court reaffirms its commitment to advance specific, measurable objectives that support the cause of justice and equity for all who come in contact with the courts," Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said in a statement Wednesday.

In his state of the judiciary address to the New Jersey State Bar Association in May, Chief Justice Rabner praised the work of the court's Committee on Wellness in the Law, which focuses on improving the mental health of New Jersey's attorneys, judges and other legal professionals.

"This is part of an overall effort to help people who are struggling and to assist individuals who are worried about colleagues and friends," Justice Rabner said in his May address.

Other areas of reform include making sure court-imposed fines and fees are structured to avoid inequitable burdens for people with lesser financial means; identifying potential disparities associated with race, ethnicity and gender in juvenile probation violations by using data; providing more support for attorneys appointed to provide pro bono representation; improving protections for at-risk older adults; and ensuring family members of court-involved people with mental health and developmental challenges can effectively navigate the judicial system.

The Supreme Court will also continue to enhance racial equity training for its staff, as well as identify areas of underrepresentation in applicants and appointments to Supreme Court committees by collecting and analyzing voluntary demographic information.

Over the course of the first three installments of the Supreme Court's action plan, it has overseen and authorized improvements in 27 areas — with some improvements directly benefiting people using the court system and others laying the foundation for systemic change, the report said.

Last year, the court developed a toolkit to support judges and staff at all levels to have voluntary conversations about race and equity issues. It also trained judges and court staff in data analysis so that leaders making policy decisions can, along with the court's Data Analysis, Research and Statistics Unit, critically examine court policies in areas with known or potential race-related disparities.

It also reexamined its practices related to all types of disabilities, which resulted in the judiciary posting more materials in HTML format on its website so it can be readable by the assistive technologies used by people with visual impairments.

Other improvements were made in the areas of juvenile justice, eliminating structural barriers for LGBTQ+ people, domestic violence prevention, and responding and coordinating outreach around populations at risk to violence such as Asians, Pacific Islanders and individuals of the Jewish faith, the report said.

--Editing by Scott Russell.

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