Monday, October 11, 2010

A New Pledge – To Strengthen Pro Bono Legal Assistance (Part 2 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.)

In my earlier post, I described the size of the problem in the U.S., where, for every person who receives federally-subsidized free legal assistance, at least one more eligible applicant is turned away. (See “Documenting the Justice Gap in America” 2009 update, page 12 (PDF).) Other countries have similar unmet needs based on their levels of funding for civil legal assistance. Government funded programs and non-governmental organizations cannot solve the problem alone. They need your help.

Poverty is An Equal Opportunity Status

The unmet need for civil legal assistance to low-income families in our communities is growing. John G. Levi, Chairman of the Legal Services Corporation’s Board of Directors, estimated that nearly 57 million Americans now qualify for free civil legal assistance based on their very-low-income status. And that is just based on 2009 Census data. When the official 2010 results are in, those ranks will no doubt grow significantly.

The numbers are worse than that: although civil legal aid programs report assistance to many people each funding cycle, many of those clients did not receive all of the help they needed due to the lack of staff and volunteers. Go to any civil legal aid office and ask about the applications they have to turn down due to insufficient staff. Without exception, each will have its stories of eligible applicants with compelling needs that they sent away with either no help or insufficient help to resolve the matter.

The issue is nonpartisan, nondenominational and gender and race neutral:

• Federal funding for free civil legal services began as part of the “Office of Economic Opportunity,” an agency created by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. The LSC has a bi-partisan Board of Directors (no more than 6 of its 11 Directors can be from the same political party) and bi-partisan support in Congress.

• Most major religions encourage help to the poor. (See these commentaries: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Hindu.) Religious organizations have voiced their support for legal aid to the poor around the globe. (See, for example, this story from Jakarta.)

• The loss of over 8 million jobs in the past few years means that many families are now living at or near the poverty line who used to be well above it. Many more are very close.

At a time when most politicians are calling for budget cuts and many states face their own financial challenges, there is little hope that federal and state funding for civil legal assistance will ever rise to the point where all eligible families and senior citizens will receive help with wills, child custody, home repair fraud, family violence protection, or appealing wrongful denials of public assistance benefits.

The Founding Fathers wrote the current U.S. Constitution “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” They understood that each of these was essential to the new nation’s long-term success. They also understood what can happen when the citizens stop believing that their government’s institutions deliver justice fairly.

Toward a Better Public+Private Solution

Government funded programs cannot meet the need at present funding levels and more funding is unlikely in the current economic and political climate. While poverty and access to justice are issues for all Americans, those of us in the legal profession have the skills, interests and knowledge necessary to provide immediate help to our most vulnerable citizens.

We need more private individuals, firms and organizations to join the effort. Wherever you find pro bono programs, there are more eligible applicants than there are willing volunteers. Pro bono program directors have very limited staff and funds, but seemingly unlimited pleas for legal assistance. Applicants in rural areas face additional challenges because most lawyers are located in urban areas that can be hours away and those in urban areas overwhelm the service providers every month.

Legal professionals are in a unique position to help fill the gap. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said that “of all secular professions, [the law] has the highest standards.” [1] Roscoe Pound, Dean of Harvard Law School from 1916-1936, observed that professionalism in the law “refers to a group…pursuing a learned art as a common calling in the spirit of public service—no less a public service because it may incidentally be a means of livelihood. Pursuit of the learned art in the spirit of public service is the primary purpose.” [2] More recently, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, after quoting Dean Pound, went on to say that “lawyers have in their possession the keys to justice under the rule of law—the keys that open the courtroom door. Those keys…are held in trust for all those who would seek justice, rich and poor alike.” [3]

The challenge is still there today. How will you rise to meet it?

There are efforts underway to address the needs. The American Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division and the Young Lawyers Associations in California, Florida, New York, Maryland and other states focus on unmet legal needs in their communities. The Texas Young Lawyers Association specifically has focused on connecting corporate counsel to pro bono opportunities with its new "Partnering for Pro Bono" program. Some states have established web sites to match volunteers to opportunities of interest without them ever leaving their keyboards: Texas, Colorado, New York, and Minnesota are a few examples.

What will you do to support your local pro bono program or legal aid organization? Are you already active in your local program? If not, you can start with these links to some of the legal aid and pro bono organizations:

United States:
American Bar Association’s Center for Pro
Legal Services Corporation’s Map
of LSC-funded Programs

Texas "C-BAR" (assistance to qualified nonprofits)

Canadian Bar Association
List of links to Legal
Aid Programs in Canada

United Kingdom:

National Pro
Bono Resource Centre

(to be continued...)

[1] Suffolk Bar Assn. Dinner, Feb. 5, 1885, Speeches (1913), reprinted in Lerner, Max, The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes 29 (1954).

[2] Pound, Roscoe, The Lawyer from Antiquity to Modern Times, 5 (1954).

[3] Remarks at the dedication of Anheuser-Busch Hall, Washington University School of Law, St. Louis, Missouri, on Sept. 26, 1997, as printed in 76 Wash. U. L.Q. 5, 12 (1998).

No comments: