Pro Bono Services, Help for Pro Se Litigants Needed to Bridge Funding Gap, Say Legal Aid Providers
A steep rise in the number of people living in poverty and a big decline in funding for legal aid services has led to a crisis in access to justice for the most vulnerable Americans, said a panel of judges and attorneys today at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting in New Orleans.
“This is truly ‘a drop off the cliff moment’ in the legal services funding world, but I would say to you nobody is going to quit and go home,” said Martha Bergmark, founding president/CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice.
The panel discussion entitled, “The Cost of Justice: Ensuring Access to Justice When There’s No Money,” sponsored by the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty and six other ABA entities, focused on innovative programs and creative ideas for legal aid to the poor.
Bergmark, a former president of the Legal Services Corporation, said providers must diversify their funding sources. She described “four legs to the chair,” as federal, state, foundation and individual giving. At the Mississippi Center for Justice, foundations provide 75 percent of the center’s funding and individual donors contribute the rest. “People give to what they can see will have an impact,” Bergmark added.
A recent survey by LSC, the nation’s single largest provider of civil legal assistance, found that LSC-funded programs anticipate laying off 393 employees, including 163 attorneys, in 2012. LSC received $348 million from Congress for fiscal year 2012, down from $420 million in fiscal 2010.
“We’re looking at the greatest cut to our program in the last 40 years,” said Mark Moreau, the co-executive director of Southeast Louisiana Legal Services, who will have to lay off one-third of the organization’s attorneys in the next three years. “You have to decide what the core priorities of your clients are and what you can realistically do….It is definitely difficult to say no, but we’re going have to learn how to say it a little more.”
The panelists agreed that more Americans will be representing themselves in court because of the recent economic crisis, and judges need continuing education on how to hear and manage cases to help level the playing field between pro se litigants and lawyers.
“Eighty to 90 percent of the people are going to court alone,” said Moreau. “But we can’t hold lawyers and pro se clients to the same standard.”
“We will never have enough pro bono lawyers, and we do not seem to be giving the money to legal services, so we have to help those who represent themselves,” said retired Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb.
During the most recent economic downturn, Cobb said 85 percent of the state employees’ layoffs were in the court system. Because of budget cuts and resistance from legislators to raise revenue, the courts laid off one-third of its juvenile probation officers and one-half of its court specialists in the clerk’s offices.
“It’s compromising justice, there’s no doubt about it,” Cobb said. “We wouldn’t be able to keep the doors open but for the use of technology.”
U.S. District Court Judge Jay C. Zainey said the federal courts in the Eastern District of Louisiana don’t see as many pro se cases. But when they do, judges appoint counsel. However, “we are very sensitive to budget cuts,” Zainey said.
“In New Orleans, we live by Pre-Katrina and post-Katrina,” Zainey added, referring to the hurricane that devastated the area in 2005. “We had 60 homeless shelters then and now we have five homeless shelters…and it has nothing to do with laziness, it has everything to do with poverty.”
Zainey and the other panelists agreed that local bar associations and law firms should contribute more pro bono services. The panelists also discussed the growing interest from law students in pro bono work and criminal justice reforms that might reduce the financial stress of the courts.