Posted May 02, 2009 04:00 am CDT
Promoting access to justice, especially for people of limited means, is central to our professional calling as lawyers.
Through pro bono programs, legal aid fundraising, policy advocacy and other efforts, there are plenty of opportunities for us to make a difference, and we do.
A recent study by the ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, for example, finds that lawyers do pro bono work at nearly three times the rate that the general population does volunteer work. But we have far to go.
The ABA’s aspirational goal for each lawyer in the country is 50 hours of volunteer legal work a year. Currently, 73 percent of lawyers report doing pro bono, at an average of 41 hours per lawyer each year.
For years, studies have shown that up to 80 percent of people in poverty do not have access to a lawyer when they need one for a civil legal problem.
The economic downturn has made the need to support access to justice greater than ever. People facing problems such as foreclosure, eviction, bankruptcy and job termination can benefit greatly from legal assistance. For example, a recent study showed that when tenants are represented by lawyers, only 22 percent are evicted, while 51 percent of unrepresented tenants are evicted.
If the need for legal help for the poor is greater than ever, our availability to do pro bono may be stronger than ever. Lawyers with reduced business, and those who are looking for work or are retired, can refresh their skills and networking contacts through pro bono activities.
In addition to pro bono, legal services programs need our financial support and advocacy. Funds from IOLTA programs and other endowments are diminishing because of declining investment returns, which then reduces contributions made to legal services and other access-to-justice programs.
In these challenging times, we must work especially hard to raise funds for local legal services and advocate for additional funding for the Legal Services Corp. While the $40 million increase in the LSC 2009 budget is encouraging, the real dollars available are still well below last decade’s levels. We will continue to educate lawmakers on the need for legal services in our communities and explain how providing a lawyer’s help at the early stages of a client’s problem can prevent the need for more costly government services later.
On the criminal side, budget cuts are threatening the viability of the constitutional right to counsel. That’s why groups such as the ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants are more critical than ever. We provide benchmarks with our universally respected standards of indigent defense systems and public defender caseloads. We identify alternatives to prosecution and incarceration to reduce the need for public defenders. And we educate policymakers on the broad, public responsibility to ensure that public defenders and assigned counsel have resources comparable to those of prosecutors.
Our support for access to justice is expected of us as a profession. As the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct state, “A lawyer should be mindful of deficiencies in the administration of justice and of the fact that the poor, and sometimes persons who are not poor, cannot afford adequate legal assistance. Therefore, all lawyers should devote professional time and resources and use civic influence to ensure equal access to our system of justice for all those who because of economic or social barriers cannot afford or secure adequate legal counsel.”
The ABA’s flagship access-to-justice entity is the Division for Legal Services. Its committees provide institutional resources and programming on civil legal aid, indigent defense, pro bono work and related areas. Other ABA groups that provide access-to-justice guidance include the Center on Children and the Law, the Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice, and the commissions on Domestic Violence, Homelessness and Poverty, Immigration, Law and Aging, Mental and Physical Disability Law, and Youth at Risk. In addition, most of the ABA’s sections and divisions sponsor access-to-justice activities involving particular areas of practice.
During this time of need and opportunity, please direct your attention to these programs. To volunteer, visit the ABA Center for Pro Bono at abanet.org/legalservices/probono. To contribute financially, visit the ABA Fund for Justice and Education at abanet.org/fje.
Our efforts can indeed make a difference.