Executive Director's Report

Reaching Our Goals

The Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants Leads the Way

Posted Jun 1, 2004 1:29 PM CDT
By Robert A. Stein

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One of the ABA’s most important goals is to promote access to justice. The work of the Stand­­ing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants to expand access to civil legal aid and to defense representation for the poor goes a long way toward fulfillment of this goal.

The committee, chaired this year by Bill White­hurst of Austin, Texas, addresses policy and practice issues affecting legal aid programs across the United States. Over the years, it has created standards for the operation of legal aid offices, established standards for auditing/monitoring legal aid programs, and advocated for a strong federal system to support local legal aid programs. In recent years, the committee’s biggest push has been to expand and diversify funding sources for legal aid.

Working with the ABA’s Governmental Affairs Office, the committee leads the fight to continue congressional funding for the Legal Services Corp. It provides advice and encouragement to state and local bar associations in advocating for federally funded legal services to the poor.

NEWS, COMMENTS AND MORE

The standing committee publishes an online newsletter on legal aid developments and contributes a section to the quarterly Dialogue magazine for bar leaders active in the legal services area. Further, on behalf of the ABA, the committee evaluates individuals nominated to serve on the LSC board, comments on proposed LSC regulations, sponsors the annual Harrison Tweed Award for bar associations that excel in developing legal services programming, and promotes loan repayment assistance for lawyers entering public service.

Though the Legal Services Corp. provides basic support for legal services to the poor, the standing committee believes it is critically important to develop other sources of funding to maintain a diverse funding base. An excellent program in this regard is the Project to Expand Re­sources for Legal Services, which has been very successful in stim­­ulating new systemic funding for legal services by encour­aging direct involvement by bar leaders in identifying funding sources, and supporting new and innovative funding mechanisms.

PERLS assists bar leaders, private lawyers, bar foundations, IOLTA programs, legal services programs and pro bono programs by providing national research, publications, support, technical assistance, in-depth training and consulting to staff and volunteers to increase their resource development skills. Since the program began in 1994, funding from state and local public and private sources has increased dramatically, while LSC funding has remained relatively static. The committee has just released the latest publication of this project, Innovative Fundraising Ideas for Legal Services—2004 Edition.

In a similar vein, the Access to Justice State Support Project, an initiative of the standing committee and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, assists in improving systems in every state for the delivery of civil legal services to the poor. The project disseminates information about national developments and provides tech­nical assistance to state planning groups, bar leaders, funders and legal services providers. It sponsors an annual summit for the chairs of the many state Access to Jus­tice commissions.

The standing committee is also active in improving systems for providing counsel to indigent people accused of crime. It serves as the principal national resource for information and assistance on indigent defense systems and funding.

The committee has held a series of hearings during the last 18 months into state compliance with the 1963 U.S. Su­preme Court decision in Gideon v. Wain­wright, which holds that people accused of crime who face imprisonment must be provided counsel. Though 2003 was the 40th anniversary of this case, many states have not succeeded in setting up systems that assure the provision of this constitutional right. Testimony from the hearings revealed a number of shortcomings common to indigent defense systems in many states. The committee will release a report in August with findings from the hearings and recommendations for improving indigent defense systems.

For more information on the important work of the Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defen­dants, or to obtain free copies of its publica­tions and research materials on civil legal aid and defender services, visit its Web page or contact the outstanding director of the ABA’s Legal Services Division, Terry Brooks, at 312-988-5747 or tjbrooks@staff.abanet.org.

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