What My Trip to Cuba Taught Me about Access to Justice

Imagine a beautiful, lush island with a city full of magnificent architecture. The citizens are friendly and the country boasts a society where illiteracy has decreased, discrimination has been outlawed and the price of rent has been slashed. And, in this country, citizens don’t have to pay for utilities, health care or legal representation.

Although this may sound like a dream come true, upon closer inspection, it’s easy to see how Cuba is a decaying land, frayed by a socialist government that has thwarted its progress for more than 50 years.

In March 2011, I had the privilege of visiting Cuba with several Tennessee judges and attorneys. During our trip, we learned about Cuba’s legal system and peered into a society that has been left behind by the world around it. And as a result, we realized just how many things we take for granted in our own country.

Cubans live in stark contrast to Americans. Havana is a beautiful city, but it is literally crumbling from the country’s lack of access to building supplies. Cuba touts the existence of free health care, but the U.S. trade embargo makes it difficult to fill prescriptions or obtain necessary medical equipment for mammograms, radiology or cancer treatment.

Citizens have not been permitted to own or transfer title to real property. Because no land purchases are permitted, there is a critical housing shortage, causing multiple generations of a family to crowd into a tiny apartment. Most apartments have no air conditioning, and many have rudimentary plumbing.

The practice of religion is tolerated but not encouraged.

Cubans are provided an attorney for all legal matters, regardless of need. However, there is no real justice in the country because tort law does not exist and there is no concept of suing someone for damages. The independent private practice of law is not permitted; every lawyer in Cuba is employed by the government.

Tort cases in Cuba primarily involve car crashes, where the only monetary award is payment for vehicle repair. Government-sold insurance is not commonly involved because it is cost prohibitive. No damages may be awarded for pain and suffering.

Because medical care is free, it is uncommon for doctors to be sued. However, if a doctor commits malpractice, one can sue for restitution. Of course, all doctors are also employed by the government, which means the government would compensate the victim. That happens infrequently.

Amazingly, with all the problems and limitations of a society without free enterprise, hope still exists in the hearts of most people. In March they talked eagerly about proposed political changes that may permit ownership of land and improve private business opportunities and construction options. In November 2011, some of those changes were, in fact, accomplished.

This experience taught me a very important lesson as it relates to our access to justice initiative in Tennessee. If hope can exist in a place where there are no real resources, think how much hope — and help — we can provide in Tennessee where our collective resources are enormous!

Today, our poorest citizens face many difficult issues — loss of jobs, lack of health care, inadequate housing, discrimination at many levels, and lack of access to civil legal advice when it is needed most. In fact, 70 percent of low-income Tennesseans experience some type of legal problem each year. One million Tennesseans currently need legal counsel and cannot afford to hire an attorney.

But we also live in a country where opportunity still exists, and in a state where the entire legal community has stood up and acknowledged the problems and pledged to help solve them. I am proud of the efforts of the bench, bar, countless organizations and community leaders to address the legal needs crisis in our state.

For three years, the Supreme Court has made access to justice our number one priority. During that time, we have made great strides to improve access to our courts. We have rolled out plain-language forms to make it easier for pro se litigants to file for divorce in certain situations. We have made a number of rule changes to encourage more lawyers to provide free or reduced-cost legal advice to indigent clients. And, in December the court launched a new website, justiceforalltn.com, which will provide information about legal resources across the state for people in need, and resources for attorneys and community members who are willing to help.

Despite all of these efforts, we still have much work to do. I believe that, as attorneys, we are the people who should care the most about whether all people receive justice. Our profession places a strong emphasis on service by imposing the responsibility to help others as a condition of enjoying the privilege of our right to practice law. The Tennessee Supreme Court believes that pro bono service is critical to each attorney’s fulfillment of his or her obligation to the profession.

I challenge each of us to do our duty as lawyers and community leaders by advancing the ideals that can truly make our community better: to promote justice and the public good. Seeing how socialism has literally made a society crumble makes me even more determined to achieve the guarantees of life, liberty and justice for all Tennesseans that our forefathers fought to create and preserve.


CORNELIA A. CLARK is the chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court.