ABA, Legal Services Corp. Pledge Continued Collaboration on Access to Justice
By Ira Pilchen
The organized bar and individual lawyers have many opportunities to help expand access to justice for low-income Americans in tight economic times. That was a central topic of discussion for the board of directors of the federal Legal Services Corp., which held its quarterly meeting Oct. 16-18 at the American Bar Association headquarters in Chicago.
LSC is the largest provider of funding for civil legal assistance programs for people in poverty. Program clients include victims of domestic violence, survivors of natural disasters, families with child custody disputes, individuals who are eligible for government benefits, and people facing foreclosures, landlord-tenant disputes and other housing issues.
In its first visit to Illinois since 1998, the LSC board continued its tradition of visiting, on a rotating basis, the nonprofit legal aid programs it supports. Among other presentations, the board heard reports from the state’s three LSC-funded legal aid programs.
The meeting at the ABA offices allowed the bar association to showcase its access to justice initiatives that dovetail with LSC’s work and to discuss shared challenges and opportunities for expanded collaboration. The location also underscored the ABA’s early backing for the legal aid concept years before President Richard Nixon signed the LSC Act into law in 1974, and its ongoing support since.
Past ABA President Robert Grey is on the LSC board, whose 11 members are appointed by the president. ABA Executive Director Jack Rives moderated a panel of representatives of four ABA access-to-justice entities.
While the chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, Robert E. Stein of Washington, D.C., emphasized that federal legal aid funding is only one aspect of expanding access to justice, he told board members that a cornerstone of ABA support for LSC is its lobbying efforts for sufficient legal aid funding. The ABA is backing President Barack Obama’s request for a $30 million increase in LSC’s 2012 budget to $450 million, while the current House appropriations bill threatens to cut $104 million.
Stein said that ABA lobbyists and grassroots supporters meet at the annual ABA Day in Washington every April to advocate for legal aid and other core issues of the legal profession. They point out that LSC funding is needed now more than ever due to the recession’s toll on people in poverty and their resulting legal needs. Supporters add that other major sources of legal aid funding—including state appropriations, private endowments and Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts revenues—are declining.
“It is clear that the overall trend in funding [for legal aid programs] is grim,” Stein said.
That’s why innovative programs are so important, said Larry McDevitt of Asheville, N.C., chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. He spoke of the upcoming National Celebration of Pro Bono, which will feature more than 600 pro bono events nationwide during the last week of October. Most events will involve direct service to clients or lawyer training.
McDevitt also mentioned an upcoming invitation-only national summit to develop ideas for expanding pro bono, and the annual Equal Justice Conference, where close to 1,000 attendees from across the country and a variety of practice settings network and learn about the latest innovations in pro bono and access to justice.
Mary Meixner, assistant staff counsel of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Assistance for Military Personnel, described the ABA Military Pro Bono Project, which recruits civilian pro bono lawyers to help military families and consult with military lawyers. The ABA Home Front website, developed to support First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to help military families, provides online legal resources for servicemembers and their families, Meixner said.
Judge Lora Livingston of Austin, Texas, chair of the ABA Commission on Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts, explained that the commission helps the ABA develop policy on IOLTA issues, provides national support services for state IOLTA programs and helps defend IOLTA programs in state and federal litigation as necessary, all of which provide funding for local legal services programs. In 2003, Livingston said, 28 jurisdictions had mandatory IOLTA programs. Today, she added, there are 44, and the ABA is working to increase the number.
LSC Chairman John Levi acknowledged the ABA’s support for legal aid and called for even greater collaboration between the ABA, the organized bar, and LSC, which is why he invited the ABA to make its presentation to the board.
“Moments like this in the country’s history challenge us all to think about what we’re trying to accomplish,” Levi said. “We don’t have an excess of funds, we don’t have an excess of pro bono hours to go around. So we have to figure out how we can come up with new models and other approaches.”
LSC board members received a handout of the panelists’ and other ABA access to justice programs, including:
- The Resource Center for Access to Justice Initiatives, which provides technical support for state access to justice commissions;
- The Commission on Homelessness and Poverty, which helps develop pro bono programs that help homeless and near-homeless people;
- The Center on Children and the Law, which provides programming and support for child welfare agencies and child protection courts;
- The Commission on Immigration, which operates pro bono projects at immigration facilities in South Texas, San Diego and Seattle;
- The Commission on Domestic and Sexual Violence, which provides education and advocacy on serving the legal needs of victims;
- The Section of Taxation, which addresses many of the tax issues unique to low- and middle-income Americans and provides support to low-income taxpayer clinics;
- The Coordinating Committee on Veterans Benefits and Services, which coordinates the more than 20 ABA groups that contribute to serving veterans; and
- The Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, which provides leadership within the ABA and the legal profession in protecting and advancing human rights, civil liberties and social justice.