How does a children’s reading collection assist with access to justice? Very well, actually, when you consider the statistics related to individuals in need of access to justice services. In 2018, 24,050 family law cases in Harris County, Texas, were initiated by a self-represented litigant, which accounted for 82.4% of all civil cases with self-represented petitioners and 41.5% of new family cases filed.* Such large numbers of individuals who go to court without representation is the result of a well-documented, nationwide lack of resources for legal aid for the poorest Americans and a second justice gap highlighted in the 2016 Texas Commission to Expand Civil Legal Services Releases Report that affects individuals who earn too much to qualify for legal aid, but are still unable to afford traditional legal services.
Yes, but what does that have to do with children’s books?
Well, the combination of family law issues and a lack of funds often means self-represented litigants have to venture to the courthouse and are unable to afford childcare in addition to legal services. That means the kids come, too. Frequently - more than 55,000 times in 2018 - self-represented litigants visit the Law Library to access legal information and knowledge as part of the process. Under stress and needing to concentrate, the caregivers benefit from the brief break the children’s section affords, but the benefits run much deeper than that.
“A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people”
As Books Between Kids, a local non-profit organization that collects books to distribute to marginalized children throughout Houston, points out, books are often scarce and considered “luxury” items in modest-means households, which can hinder a child’s ability to participate in and complete basic education. The Legal Services Corporation Justice Gap Report indicates strong correlations between limited education, poverty, and a need for access to justice services. By providing access to age-appropriate reading material for free in partnership with the Harris County Public Library, we can give kids access to learning opportunities they might not otherwise experience. In the aggregate, that transforms thousands of visits to the courthouse and law library into opportunities to promote education, which has the potential to help thousands of kids in modest-means households avoid falling through justice gaps later in life.
A step further
The Law Library also distributes kids activity books from the State Bar of Texas. Two titles - Let’s Learn a Little About the Law and Luis Goes to Court - carry all the benefits of the children’s reading materials with the added benefit of educating kids on laws and court procedures in Texas. Available in both English and Spanish, the activity books help kids learn about the legal system. In the case of Luis Goes to Court, the activity book can even be used to help kids understand how to participate in a court proceeding as a witness. With so many family law cases in Harris County, it is a needed resource and we are pleased to collaborate with the State Bar to make it available at the point of need.
Why the Rainbow?
Law library books tend fall into “professional-looking” color palates that many might call… boring. Thanks to Helen Hartman, our summer intern who joins us from the Harris County Commissioner Precinct One LEE Internship Program, the children’s reading collection stands out in the sea of brown, navy, and burgundy! We realize this organization scheme is controversial with our public library colleagues, so we’ll apologize for any anxiety it causes and we’ll promise never to organize a larger collection this way.
*Statistics retrieved from Texas Office of Court Administration Court Activity Reporting and Directory System on February 28, 2018.