Sunday, October 3, 2010

A New Pledge – To Strengthen Pro Bono Legal Assistance (Part 1 of 4)

(October 24-30, 2010, is “Celebrate Pro Bono Week” in the United States and Canada and November 8-12, 2010 is “National Pro Bono Week” in the United Kingdom. This is the first of a 4-part series illustrating the need, the challenges and the priceless rewards for volunteer legal professionals. For more information about these events, go to this site for the U.S. and this one for the U.K.)

“…with Liberty and Justice For All.”

School children recite the Pledge of Allegiance in the United States nearly every school day:

“I pledge allegiance, to the Flag,
of the United States of America.
And to the Republic, for which it stands.
One nation, under God, indivisible,
with liberty and justice for all.”

To help celebrate National Pro Bono weeks in various countries, I have written a brief series of posts proposing a similar kind of pledge for legal professionals.

Pro bono legal assistance has a long, rich history in nearly all “common law” legal systems. Lawyers have likely been providing free legal assistance to those who cannot afford to hire them since the legal profession began. The concept of providing free civil legal assistance to the poor in an organized fashion dates to the 1800s in the U.S. when legal aid societies were formed to meet the needs of their communities. Perhaps the best known type of pro bono legal assistance is court-appointed counsel for indigent defendants in criminal cases. Think of the American novel, To Kill A Mockingbird, for example.

In the U.S., there is a constitutional right to counsel for federal and most state criminal defendants when imprisonment is a potential punishment. (Most U.S. states also provide the right to representation when the State seeks to terminate their parental rights.) In the U.K. and Canada, people who are arrested may request an “Independent Solicitor” at the police station if they cannot afford their own representation.

But indigent defendants in civil cases have no such right to court-appointed representation. Even though depriving a person of a home, job, or marital property or suffering fraud by an unscrupulous business can be as traumatic and injurious as jail for most families, we have not elevated those problems to the same level as deprivation of liberty or life.

--When a relative wants to adopt an abused child who has been rescued by child protective services and placed in their care, the state will not pay for their legal assistance to complete the adoption.

--When an entire family is about to be homeless because a landlord with poor rent records or a sinister motive is evicting them on short notice, the eviction court will not appoint an attorney to represent them.

--When a judge intentionally or unintentionally refuses to correctly apply the law in a battered spouse’s divorce case, there is no right to counsel to avoid having our legal system used as yet one more weapon of abuse.

--When a working family needs to restructure their debts in bankruptcy to get back on their feet after a major illness or income disruption, the bankruptcy process is generally too complicated for them without legal guidance and legal fees can make the process cost more than they can pay.

--When an elderly widow needs title to her home cleared so she can obtain disaster relief funds or qualify for property tax reductions, no one at the tax office or property records office can represent her.

--When a legally-blind home owner who lives entirely on his Social Security retirement check is tricked into signing papers that give his home to a contractor he thought was trying to help him rebuild after a storm, the litigation required to nullify that contract is typically too complicated to handle alone.

--When a small neighborhood church for low-income families is sued by a carpet company for payment even though no carpet was ever delivered, no one can speak for the nonprofit group unless they can find a lawyer to defend them.
The Public Part of the Solution
Most western nations attempt to address this gap with legal aid in one form or another. There are a number of organizations who provide free civil legal help using full time staff. The Legal Services Corporation distributed over $400 million USD in 2009 to help fund over 136 programs across the U.S. and its territories, for example. Canadian governments contributed approximately $300 million CAD (48% of the total funding to civil and criminal legal aid programs). Standing government agencies and NGOs help millions of low-income people every year in many countries.

Yet the need is still there. The Legal Services Corporation in the United States calculated that, in 2009, almost one million eligible applicants were turned away due to insufficient funding. (See “Documenting the Justice Gap in America” 2009 update, page 9 (PDF).) According to the LSC, in the U.S., “for every client served by an LSC-funded program, at least one eligible person seeking help will be turned down.” (Id., at p. 12.)

This is not a small gap in our quest for “equal justice under the law” (Caldwell v. Texas, 137 U.S. 692, 697 (1891).) that only occurs in isolated cases. This is not merely a problem that plagues poorer states, counties and towns. The holes in America’s pledge to “justice for all” are everywhere. This is a national issue of grave importance in every nation. It is time for a new pledge: A Pledge To Strengthen Pro Bono Legal Assistance.

(to be continued...) Go to Part 2

No comments: