Posted Oct 02, 2009 04:00 am CDT
In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Gideon decision stated that all indigent criminal defendants are entitled to a lawyer’s help. Yet our criminal justice system continues to deprive the poor of equal access to justice. Public defenders are still overworked and the problem has been exacerbated by the recession and resulting justice system budget cuts.
Despite serious flaws in the criminal defense system, criminal defendants at least have a constitutional right to legal assistance. This is not the case in our civil justice system. Millions of low-income people and others affected by the economic crisis who face life-changing civil legal issues (e.g., loss of their home, loss of their family or custody issues) have no right to a lawyer, and at least 80 percent of poor people who need civil legal help do not receive it.
Here, too, the economic crisis is making the situation more dire. The need for legal assistance that can help avert or mitigate evictions, foreclosures, personal bankruptcies and other recession-related problems is greater than ever. The ABA Coalition for Justice is assessing the “justice gap” as a result of the economic crisis and will report on the scope of the legal services shortfall.
The ABA continually lobbies Congress to increase funding for the Legal Services Corp., which provides legal assistance to the poor in civil matters. Thanks to the grassroots support led by the ABA, legal services are due for a significant funding increase; but despite the additional funding, legal needs will remain greatly underserved. And because of our lobbying efforts, the White House and Congress are working to lift restrictions on federally funded legal services programs that impede the efficient delivery of legal services.
But we must do much more. Lawyers and advocates nationwide have been working hard, with ABA support, for the right to counsel in civil matters where basic human needs are at stake—a “civil Gideon” policy. They are making progress case by case, state by state, jurisdiction by jurisdiction. Most recently, in the Alaska Supreme Court case of Office of Public Advocacy v. Alaska Court System, the ABA filed an amicus brief supporting civil Gideon. This fundamental right must be recognized by courts and legislatures—and fully funded.
Another equally critical component in bridging the justice gap is pro bono, and lawyers are rising to the challenge. A recent ABA study shows that 73 percent of lawyers reported doing pro bono work in 2008. The number of pro bono hours worked annually per lawyer increased from 39 in 2004 to 41 in 2008. While the profession’s dedication to pro bono is to be applauded, those efforts alone cannot fill the justice gap.
The ABA’s support for pro bono activity includes policies that encourage the adoption of pro bono practice rules for qualified retired or otherwise inactive lawyers, support transparency of law firms’ pro bono practices when recruiting at law schools, and encourage courts to develop programs that facilitate and recognize pro bono representation. Also, in an effort to encourage retired and inactive members to provide services, the ABA has adopted a dues waiver program for those who have provided 500 hours of pro bono service in the prior year.
Other notable ABA initiatives include the Military Pro Bono Project, which provides pro bono services to active-duty service members, and the Medical-Legal Partnerships Pro Bono Support Project, which joins doctors and lawyers to help patients resolve health-related problems such as hunger, winter utility shut-offs and mold removal from the homes of asthmatic children.
This month marks the launch of the ABA’s National Pro Bono Celebration (probono.net/celebrateprobono), during the last week of October. Organized by the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, it will recognize efforts of America’s lawyers, recruit volunteers and mobilize community support for pro bono.
Events throughout the nation sponsored by law firms, bar associations, courts, law schools, programs and corporate counsel will acknowledge lawyers who have committed themselves to making access to justice for all a reality. But more important, the celebration will serve as a reminder of the ever-growing needs of this country’s most vulnerable citizens—needs that are only accentuated by the current economic climate.
During the recession, the ABA is encouraging several law firms that deferred associates to urge them to work in pro bono and public service positions. This is yet another way we demonstrate our responsibility to help meet the legal needs of the poor. But while much has been accomplished, we still have much to do.