LSC Updates - December 14, 2005
On December 8, LSC issued Program Letter 05-03 to provide LSC-funded programs with additional guidance on providing services to those affected by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. The program letter is an update of a memorandum on the subject sent to programs from LSC President Helaine M. Barnett on September 9, 2005.
In the letter, programs are reminded that while all LSC regulations and reporting requirements still apply, they allow programs some flexibility to represent clients in an emergency situation, ensuring that the greatest number of evacuees and other affected people receive the legal assistance they need. LSC continues to work with its programs to help them make a difference in the lives of their clients and give them a voice and some degree of control in these trying times.
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LSC LAUNCHES NEW WEBSITE
LSC is pleased to announce the launch of its new website at www.LSC.gov. The new site represents much more than a redesign; it is a complete restructuring that makes LSC's home on the web more informative, timely, and user-friendly than ever before. Everything from the underlying technology to the overall look and feel has been upgraded to allow LSC to publish more information more frequently and to enable the user to find relevant information more efficiently.
The revamped site also features entirely new sections of content. The most important is the "Program Info" section where users can learn about the work of LSC-funded programs, and where staff from those programs can access valuable LSC-related resources.
For the last nine years Congress has imposed a wasteful, anti-libertarian, and downright dangerous restriction on how legal aid organizations funded by the federal Legal Services Corp. can spend private donations and state grants.
I know. I was partly responsible. But the LSC has improved in the years since I voted to impose this restriction. And now, for the sake of our nation's low-income families in need of legal representation, often to fight oppressive government power, it's time to rethink some of these financial constraints.
A few years ago I said, plain and simple, "I'm not a fan of spending federal money on the Legal Services Corporation." As a member of Congress in 1996, I voted for a series of restrictions - which President Bill Clinton signed into law - that put a severe damper on the controversial LSC. To depoliticize (and thereby improve) legal services for our nation's indigent, we prohibited LSC-funded groups from filing class actions and collecting attorney fees. We also banned LSC attorneys from representing anyone in prison and many classes of immigrants.
Ten years later, the LSC is here to stay, and, more important, it's improved since 1996. As the chair for two years of the House oversight committee that monitors the LSC and as a member of the Judiciary Committee for the entire eight years I served in Congress, I know the organization's problems better than almost anyone. The LSC needed cleaning up, and with that done, many conservatives can and should support much of its work.
Surprised? Many others would be too, but think about it: Empowering citizens to fight oppressive or overly powerful government is a very conservative notion. And there are many examples of the important work that legal services programs do every day.
Take one: I have been pleased - and more than a little shocked - to learn that South Jersey Legal Services, an LSC-funded program, is helping low-income individuals and families in Camden defend their property rights against an expansive eminent domain seizure by the city. They don't want to leave their homes so that a private company can come in, redevelop the neighborhood, and turn a healthy profit. But not all low-income families will be so lucky to have such legal representation.
Unfortunately, a restriction on the LSC, the "physical-separation requirement," limits the work LSC grantees can do. The requirement forces them to strictly quarantine privately funded activities from those financed with federal money. Civil legal aid groups can perform restricted activities - such as seeking court-ordered attorney fees and helping incarcerated people plan for re-entry - only with nonfederal money and only if they carry out those activities in a physically separate facility with separate staff.
However, from a practical standpoint, because setting up a separate organization with its own office, executive director, computers, copiers, and personnel costs so much, few organizations can bear the financial burden of complying with physical separation.
The effect? State, local, and private donations get washed away. Funds are siphoned off to cover unnecessary administrative expenses. And lawyers fighting civil legal battles each year on behalf of our nation's low-income families must turn away thousands of poor Americans who need legal representation.
Frustrated and fed up, three legal services offices in New York City challenged the physical-separation requirement in 2001. The case is Velazquez v. Legal Services Corp. In court the LSC, defending the legislative restriction, claimed that physical separation is necessary to ensure that the federal government does not subsidize or appear to support activities Congress has chosen not to fund. A more lenient regime, it argued, simply would not suffice.
On the other side, the legal services programs aptly argued that the physical-separation requirement is unconstitutional because it limits speech protected by the First Amendment. They pointed out that less burdensome measures, such as precise bookkeeping, could ensure that government grants don't fund restricted activities.
U.S. District Judge Frederic Block of the Eastern District of New York agreed with the three legal services providers. Last year, in a sound, well-written opinion, he issued a preliminary injunction barring the LSC from enforcing the physical-separation requirement against the three plaintiffs. He also set out a sensible model for tracking funds that would allow the government to determine how federal money is spent without meddling unnecessarily with local, state, and private funds.
But the LSC and the Department of Justice appealed Judge Block's decision. The case is fully briefed, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit heard oral argument on Nov. 2.
I hope that the appeals court will agree with Judge Block and allow the plaintiffs to do their important work in a much more efficient manner, one less controlled by the federal government. But even if the 2nd Circuit upholds the lower court's ruling, the decision will apply at most to the LSC programs in that jurisdiction - not to all LSC grantees across the country. Other legal services offices, state and local governments, and private donors will not be free of this onerous restriction. This means that the vast majority of local, state, and private donations will remain tangled up in this federal rule.
If the LSC and the Justice Department insist on wasting time and taxpayer dollars defending an unconstitutional and unwise law, it is up to Congress to correct this mistake. Just as we don't want a nanny state telling us not to smoke cigarettes, we don't want a nanny Congress telling government partners how to spend nonfederal dollars.
It's one thing to disfavor a federal program; it's quite another to tell private citizens and states how their money can or cannot be used. Yet that is the practical effect when states and private donations must be diverted to separate organizations for poor families to obtain legal representation in certain types of civil cases.
In other areas, the government does not require such stringent separation between federally and nonfederally funded activities. Take, for example, grantees of President George W. Bush's Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Faith-based organizations guarantee that government money intended to fund social services does not support religious activities in violation of the establishment clause. They ensure this by keeping careful records. But they are not forced to run their religious activities and social services out of two separate facilities with two separate staffs. Why not apply the same standards for separation to civil legal aid groups?
Or, perhaps more important for many conservatives, what if the courts accept the government's argument in Velazquez that physical separation is a necessary requirement for legal services programs?
If physical separation's web of waste grows to entangle faith-based organizations, these groups could very well themselves be required to cordon off religious activities from their hugely successful, government-funded social services initiatives.
With this risk looming, faith-based groups are beginning to rally to stave off what could lead to the death of public-private partnerships as we know them. Just last month, 31 leading faith-based groups - including Evangelicals for Social Action, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the Exodus Transitional Community, the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, and the National Baptist Convention - signed a letter urging Congress to lift the physical-separation requirement. These groups represent more than 55 million Americans of faith.
Last year groups committed to helping prisoners re-enter society and rebuild their lives, such as Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship International, also sent a letter to Congress expressing their concern about the physical-separation requirement. Clearly, it is time for the broader conservative community to mobilize against this pernicious restriction.
The physical-separation requirement prevents thousands of Americans from receiving adequate civil legal representation. It wastes both taxpayer dollars and charitable contributions. It needlessly trespasses into the affairs of private citizens, and it threatens to destroy the public-private partnership model that has reaped great benefits since the Reagan years.
Today, no American should be proud of this wasteful restriction. I'm certainly not, and neither should my fellow conservatives.
Bob Barr represented the 7th District of Georgia in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. He currently is president of Liberty Strategies and practices law in Atlanta.
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North Carolina, by order of the state Supreme Court and Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake Jr., has established the Equal Access to Justice Commission, thus becoming the 19th state to establish such an entity.
The 25-member commission will include representative stakeholders from across the state and will be chaired by the chief justice.
The commission was established in recognition of the need to expand access to civil legal representation for people of low income and modest means in North Carolina.
Among the purposes of the commission are unmet legal needs assessment, statewide strategic planning, coordination of efforts between the legal aid organizations and other legal and non-legal organizations, resource development, expanding civil access to justice.
The legal community will be represented by a board member and staff member from Legal Aid of North Carolina (2), one board or staff member from the N.C. Justice Center (1) and one board or staff member from another legal aid program (1).
On December 12, 2005, the Westchester County Board of Legislators added $500,000 to its 2006 budget to fund an office in Mount Vernon, New York, for Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV). The Westchester County Executive and Board of Legislators strongly support funding civil legal services for the poor, and decided to add this funding to assist residents in one of the county's neediest and most under-served cities. In thanking the County Board of Legislators, LSHV Executive Director Barbara Finkelstein promised to open a full service legal office that would serve the critical legal needs of poor and low-income people in Mount Vernon. Speaking during the budget debate, Chairman of the Board William Ryan said it is "the responsibility of government to provide services, including civil legal services, to improve the quality of life of residents." "The demand is there for these services - we are supplying the tools for people to level the legal playing field. We are helping to improve their lives," said County Legislator Clinton Young of Mount Vernon. This will be the seventh office that LSHV will establish in the seven counties it covers.
Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (formerly Westchester/Putnam Legal Services) is a non-profit organization that has been providing high quality free legal representation to poor and low-income individuals and families in civil legal matters for over thirty-five years. The services offered help struggling individuals to resolve urgent, non-criminal legal problems that can lead to larger social problems such as homelessness. Since LSHV's inception in 1967, more than 100,000 clients have been served. LSHV provides services in Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, Putnam, Rockland, Sullivan and Ulster Counties in New York. They have offices in White Plains (headquarters office), Yonkers, Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Mahopac and Kingston, New York.
One of the challenges for Cheryl Cureton, managing attorney for the Owensboro office of Kentucky Legal Aid, is battling public perceptions about the legal services her office provides.
Some think that because Kentucky Legal Aid provides free legal assistance for low-income residents, those clients have to wait up to a year for help. Others think the office will provide legal guidance, but only from someone who is not a "real lawyer."
"Sometimes people will say that they didn't even know we were down here," said Cureton, who has been with the office for five years. "I take every opportunity I can to get the word out." The two attorneys and support staff in the Owensboro office, which is one of six in western Kentucky, handle civil cases ranging from family law to housing issues to bankruptcy in Daviess, Hancock, Henderson, McLean and Ohio counties.
Cureton previously worked for the state as an attorney before going into private practice and then making the switch to public interest law five years ago.
Some of her experiences in private practice made her realize that she wanted to shift to practicing law for those who could least afford legal representation.
"A lot of the clients that come into a private law office have limited means," Cureton said. "It's nice to be able to represent people (with Legal Aid) ... and not to have to limit yourself in any way based on their ability to pay."
The ability to provide free legal service is dependent upon the ability of Kentucky Legal Aid and other public interest legal service agencies to secure funding, which has grown more challenging in recent years.
While a decline in federal funding three years ago threatened Kentucky Legal Aid's offices, increased money from the state and the United Way has helped the organization continue to offer the same level of service.
"We're always looking for funding," she said. "It will probably always be a challenge. (But) a lot of people in our state have really come to bat for us."
Legal Aid of Western Ohio, Inc. (LAWO) has been awarded an $8,782 grant by The Findlay-Hancock County Community Foundation to support LAWO's AmeriCorps Homelessness Prevention and Housing Opportunity Project.
According to Kevin Mulder, LAWO's executive director, the grant money will be used to help support an AmeriCorps attorney who will serve Hancock County residents. "Our organization has been able to help fight one of the key issues facing low-income people by offering legal help for housing matters," said Mulder. "The grant from The Community Foundation will allow us to expand our efforts and help more people in Hancock County."
The AmeriCorps Homelessness Prevention and Housing Opportunity Project supports attorneys who provide free legal assistance to low-income citizens with housing issues. The Program targets two of the most important issues facing low-income people: lack of affordable housing and poor housing conditions. AmeriCorps attorneys and staff frequently assist clients who face eviction, predatory lending practices, foreclosure, and other landlord/tenant disputes.
Collapsed ceilings, falling sheetrock, and no water or electricity drove Greg Dedeaux out of his Gulfport, Miss., apartment after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast three months ago. For two weeks, the 52-year-old truck driver slept in his 1995 Jeep Cherokee.
Spurred by a rumor that displaced tenants didn't have to pay rent, he didn't write his monthly $345 check. His information was wrong. Dedeaux's landlord filed an eviction notice, and a housing court ruled that he pay or vacate the premises. Dedeaux paid, and is now sleeping on a living room couch since his two bedrooms are cluttered with debris. His 76-year-old mother, who moved in with him after the hurricane, is sleeping on a cot in a hallway outside the bathroom.
"I didn't think it was fair, but I had no other choice," Dedeaux, who believes his rent should have been waived or reduced because of his apartment's condition, said in a telephone interview. "This isn't just happening to me and the apartment complex I'm in. It's the whole Gulf Coast."
Housing woes in the aftermath of the devastating Atlantic hurricane season are causing a fresh wave of trauma on the Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama coastlines, where more than 300,000 houses were destroyed or badly damaged, according to the National Association of Home Builders. In some of the smallest, poorest coastal communities, every home was lost.
The problems are exacerbated by a drastic shortage of legal aid for the poor, many of whom can't afford lawyers or don't know how to find them. The resulting legal crisis prompted the president of the American Bar Association to warn that the hurricanes may have triggered "one of the greatest legal services crises in the history of this country."
On December 7, 2005 the Board of Trustees of the IOLA Fund awarded $10,000,000 in grants to support programs providing civil legal services to low-income persons throughout New York State. The amount represents a 25% increase over the $8,000,000 awarded last year.
The Fund administers two grant programs: Civil Legal Services, which supports programs that provide free legal services in housing, family law and public benefits, among others, and Administration of Justice, which supports programs that serve the elderly, the disabled, immigrants, children and victims of domestic violence as well as other programs that improve the administration of justice in New York State.
The Legislature created the IOLA program in 1983. The Fund is administered by a Board of Trustees appointed by the Governor. It enables interest to be earned on short term or nominal deposits held in a lawyer's pooled client trust account, with the interest remitted directly by the financial institution to the Fund for distribution in grants.
The IOLA grantees for 2006 [include]:
Legal Aid Society of Northeastern NY
Legal Assistance of Western New York
Legal Services for New York City
Legal Services of the Hudson Valley
Nassau/Suffolk Law Services Committee
Neighborhood Legal Services
Harvard Law School made history this week by having more students win a coveted Skadden Fellowship than any other law school in the program's history. HLS students and alumni won nine of the public interest fellowships, besting the record of eight Fellows in a year that was set in 2004 by none other than HLS. This brings the number of Skaddens won by Harvard since 2000 to an astounding 40.
2006 Skadden Fellows [include]:
Sarah Mattson '05, New Hampshire Legal Assistance
Jessica Myers '06, Legal Aid of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands
Jose Rodriguez '06, Florida Legal Services
Charlotte Saunders '05, Georgia Legal Services Program
Lisa Young '05, Legal Aid Society of San Diego
The Skadden Fellows are selected from a highly competitive pool of applicants to spend two years working with a sponsoring organization to provide legal services for under-served communities. The Skadden Fellowship Foundation, sponsored by the firm of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher, and Flom, pays the Fellows' salaries, benefits, and loans during the fellowship.
The 2006 Fellows were overjoyed to hear the news. "I can't wait," said Lisa Young '05, who will be assisting clients going to housing and eviction court through the Legal Aid Society of San Diego.
The Fellows were happy to share their advice for students still exploring the path of public interest. There was unanimous support for clinical work, as well as making use of Harvard's vast alumni network. "Call lawyers who have careers that interest you and ask them how they got there," said Charlotte Saunders '05, a former Legal Aid Bureau president who will fight employment discrimination against migrant workers through the Georgia Legal Services Program. (The Fellows practice what they preach: more than one invited this reporter to call back with career questions.)
An organization offering free legal services to low-income households in Eastern Missouri is coming to Kirksville.
The Legal Services of Eastern Missouri Inc., stationed in Hannibal, Mo., serves free legal services to low-income households in more than 14 counties.
On the third Wednesday of every month, people may visit with a paralegal from the LSEM to see if they qualify for these free services.
"We can't sit around and wait for the phone to ring," said Kevin Suffern, the managing attorney of the Hannibal office. "So we have to take the service to the people."
During the meeting, the paralegal will discuss the case and determine whether LSEM can help.
The government's court-ordered plans to improve the island's mental health infrastructure represent a "turning point" for the island in how it helps people with mental illnesses, said attorney Daniel Somerfleck, whose agency has represented mental health patients.
In a press conference yesterday, Gov. Felix Camacho announced two new systems -- a wait-list system and a grievance or appeals process -- aimed at ensuring people who need help are able to be assessed and given timely, appropriate treatment.
"Today, the plaintiffs and the court have accepted our wait-list system with the condition that we allow public input," Camacho said. The governor said his administrators expect that Guam Legal Services will approve the grievance and appeal process sometime this week. His office will hold a hearing on Dec. 20 to receive public input on the two plans.
Guam Legal Services, in a federal lawsuit against the government of Guam in 2001, represented three men living with mental illnesses who were not receiving the appropriate treatment.
District Court Judge Consuelo Marshall last year gave the government until Dec. 5, 2004, to improve mental health services, but the deadline passed without progress.
In August this year, Marshall gave the local government more time to submit its plan for improvements.
Somerfleck, director of Guam Legal Services Corp., said since the initial lawsuit in 2001, the government has made strides in improving its treatment of people with mental illness.
He added that past civil suits against the government have prompted the creation of a program that helped one person whom his office represented in court.
"I filed lawsuit after lawsuit, which placed one person. But now it's not a matter of suing to get the services for one person," Somerfleck said. "Now we're putting forward a scheme to identify those needs in a comprehensive plan. ... It's a real turning point for the government."
Incoming Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Alan Feldman said Tuesday he will ask each law firm in the city to contribute $300 per lawyer to local legal services organizations. At the association's annual meeting, Feldman said he will ask for the donations in conjunction with the American Bar Association's Equal Justice Conference, a national gathering of legal services lawyers to be held in Philadelphia next spring. Feldman added that contributions will be published so the entire community can see which firms are contributing money and how much.
"The truth is that there isn't a law firm in this town that can't afford what amounts to less than $1 per day, or about one billable hour per year, for each of its lawyers," Feldman said.
Feldman said that while recent studies show Philadelphia law firms have experienced sizable increases in profitability, they are substantially outpaced by their counterparts in New York, Boston, Atlanta and Cleveland when it comes to giving financial support to legal services organizations such as the Philadelphia Bar Foundation and the Volunteers for the Indigent program.
Feldman also said he will ask the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the state Continuing Legal Education board of directors to adopt new rules which would permit lawyers to earn CLE credit for qualifying pro bono work. He said this idea has already been adopted in five other states, including neighboring Delaware.
The Ashtabula County Bar Association and The Legal Aid Society in Ashtabula County acknowledges the following attorneys for their agreement to participate in the 2006 pro bono (volunteer) project: Jerome Lemire, H. Valentine Holz II, Jason Fairchild, Jane Timonere, Philip Cordova, Gary Pasqualone, Kyle Smith, David Per Due, Virginia Miller, Pamela Houston, Nicholas Iarocci, Mark Andrews, Jeffrey Ford, David Pontius, Samuel Altier, Michael Meaney, David McCombs, James Sartini, William Bobulsky, Jonathan Winer, and Duane Dubsky.
The Ohio State Bar Association highlights pro bono work as a top priority. The volunteer program in Ashtabula County is a collaborative effort between Legal Aid and the bar association. The program expands legal services for the poor; a recent study of legal needs in Ohio found that an estimated 83% of the legal problems experienced by the poor fail to get legal attention. The Ashtabula County Bar Association and Legal Aid are offering a CLE on ethics, professionalism, and substance abuse, free of charge to their pro bono volunteers. This CLE will take place at the Geneva Lodge and Conference Center on December 9, 2005. The Ashtabula County Bar Association's annual meeting and holiday dinner will follow the CLE.
Davida J. Dodson, managing attorney of The Legal Aid Society in Ashtabula County, points out that the ability of the poor to get representation may mean the difference between keeping a family together and homelessness. "The need for legal services is one that all lawyers can understand because it may mean the difference between a life of hope and one of hopelessness for the poor."
Older Nebraskans are about to get some help navigating the legal system. Legal Aid of Nebraska will launch a new statewide "Elder AccessLine" Dec. 12, targeting Nebraskans over the age of 60.
"We're trying to be responsive to the needs out there. The elderly population is growing in Nebraska, and our society is more complicated than it used to be," said Doug German, executive director for Legal Aid of Nebraska.
The agency already operates a statewide "AccessLine" available to low-income Nebraskans.
Elder AccessLine will serve all Nebraskans over the age of 60, giving basic legal advice on issues facing them. Those answers could be about drafting wills or other documents, including health care powers-of-attorney, health care plan choices, Medicare and Medicaid issues, landlord-tenant issues and disputes, credit card access, card problems and collections.
Legal Aid has hired one attorney and assigned a paralegal to handle calls. The number is 1-800-527-7249.
The Anchorage and Fairbanks law firm of Guess & Rudd P.C. has issued a fundraising challenge to benefit Alaska Legal Services Corporation. Guess & Rudd P.C. has pledged to donate $10,000 to ALSC's Robert Hickerson Partners in Justice campaign if eight other Alaska law firms or members of the legal community will each make a matching $10,000 donation.
Guess & Rudd Managing Shareholder Joan Rohlf explained, "Our firm made this decision because we are acutely aware of the obstacles confronting low-income Alaskans faced with civil legal problems where there is no right to appointed counsel, and, as members of the legal profession, we feel a special responsibility to promote equal access to that civil justice system within which we work."
ALSC's annual fundraising campaign is dedicated to the late Robert Hickerson, whose twenty-year career with Alaska Legal Services was dedicated to the goal of ensuring equal access to the civil justice system for all Alaskans. Executive Director Andy Harrington stated, "The Guess & Rudd challenge and the opportunity to raise a total of $90,000 for ALSC comes at a crucial time, as the recent unexpected loss of our program's Rural Domestic Violence funding has resulted in downsizing, staffing cutbacks, and a looming budget shortfall for calendar year 2006. ALSC has had more than its share of challenges lately, but this is one challenge we look forward to meeting."
The deadline for meeting the challenge is December 31, 2005, with payment due by June 30, 2006. Law firms or individual donors who are interested in helping to meet this challenge should contact ALSC Executive Director Andy Harrington in Fairbanks at 907-452-5181 or Director of Volunteer Services and Community Support Erick Cordero in Anchorage at 907-222-4521.
Facing a grave budget crisis and a new influx of people seeking legal assistance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, LSC-funded Alabama Legal Services (ALS) is turning to local law firms and others in the private sector for financial support. While most states at least match the amount of grant money the federal LSC provides to legal aid programs in the state, Alabama falls far short of that mark. The state ranks 51st in the nation in local funding for legal services for low-income individuals and families, behind every state and Puerto Rico. Now that ALS has lost a $600,000 federal grant to help domestic violence victims, ALS's financial situation is all the more serious. ALS's 12-week "Guardians of Justice" campaign already has raised roughly half of its $750,000 goal from 10 Birmingham law firms. But the campaign is just the starting point for ALS's five-year plan to double its operating budget and substantially expand its capacity to help low-income Alabamans with civil legal matters. Melissa Pershing, executive director of ALS, estimates that Alabama's legal services programs currently meet one percent of the need. "The financial support of these law firms will make a critical difference in the lives of many domestic violence victims -- including many children -- and ultimately keep them from joining the ranks of the hopeless and homeless," Pershing says.
Eric Velasco, City Law Firms Kick Start Fund to Represent Poor, Birmingham News (Alabama), Nov. 23, 2005. Visit www.alsp.org for more information.
The Supreme Court of Texas and the Texas Access to Justice Commission today announced the availability of a free, self-help Vietnamese Protective Order Kit, which will enable Vietnamese-speaking victims of domestic violence to obtain court-ordered protection on their own. The Protective Order Kit was released in English and Spanish earlier this year.
The free Protective Order Kit is designed to help low-income abuse victims break the cycle of violence through legal means. Legal aid has been cited as one of the primary reasons for a decline in domestic violence nationwide; victims of family violence are more likely to leave their abusers permanently if they have access to affordable legal help, such as protective orders, divorce, and child custody and support.
The kit can be accessed online at www.TexasLawHelp.org. The Web site features free information for low-income Texans in a variety of civil legal matters, including consumer and family law, public benefits, and immigration.
The step-by-step Protective Order Kit, created by a Texas Supreme Court Task Force, comes with detailed instructions for filling out the paperwork, having a temporary order signed by a judge, and requesting a hearing date to grant the protective order. The temporary order and the protective order are enforceable once they are signed by a judge.
The kit also provides information to help victims prepare for the hearing. There is no cost to the victims to participate in these proceedings. All instructional documents are available in Vietnamese. Although court forms must remain in English due to court requirements, a monolingual Vietnamese speaker may request an interpreter at any court proceedings.
Some call it the "Home Depot" approach. Others prefer the legal term, pro se litigation. Either way, Idaho is taking pains to let "do-it-yourself"-minded residents handle basic legal matters, without using attorneys.
"There are literally thousands of people without legal assistance resolving cases in magistrate or district court every year," Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerald Schroeder said. "And apparently, that includes a significant number of people who could afford legal counsel."
In 1998, the state began an experiment in do-it-yourself legal representation. Designed to ease the burden on underfunded legal aid programs, the Idaho judiciary opened a few offices across the state to help walk people through undisputed divorces and other relatively uncomplicated legal matters.
Now those offices operate in 38 counties and cover topics ranging from landlord-tenant disputes to child custody to name changes to power of attorneys.
Idaho's system is fairly cutting edge, providing more services to pro se litigants than most other states, said 4th District Judge Michael Dennard, who oversees the state's court assistance offices. Through a grant from [LSC], Idaho is developing an interactive Web site that will allow users to answer questions in either Spanish or English and print out the proper English-language court form.
But other states are also making efforts to help low-income - or simply attorney-free - litigants, according to Legal Services' 2003-2004 annual report.
Colorado is working on electronic filing for pro se litigants, and Montana is building a video conferencing system to allow clients in remote areas to meet with legal services attorneys. Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Tennessee and Washington have all completed studies detailing the legal needs of their low-income populations, according to Legal Services.
Thirty of the 55 large Manhattan law firms asked by the New York City Bar Association to endorse its aspirational "Statement of Pro Bono Principles" did so Tuesday.
Included in the statement is a pledge that signatory firms perform 50 or more hours per lawyer per year.
A "substantial majority" of those hours should be in the cause of civil legal help for poor people -- or about 30 hours, said Bettina B. Plevan, city bar president.
That figure coincides with the 30 hours of annual pro bono service to the poor long advocated by Volunteers of Legal Service.
Under the new city bar policy, pro bono credit would not accrue for cash contributions by the law firms to nonprofit agencies. According to an advisory from the city bar, "In addition to the requisite 50 hours, firms also agree to offer both financial and substantive support to legal service organizations."
The Lettie Pate Evans Foundation has awarded Atlanta Legal Aid Society a grant for $750,000.00 to fund the Health Law Partnership (HeLP), a collaborative project with Georgia State University's College of Law (GSU) and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta.
HeLP, founded in 2004, seeks to address the legal [issues] that impact the health of children through a three-prong approach. The project offers on-site legal services to low-income families whose children are patients at Children's Healthcare facilities. A second component is an interdisciplinary educational program for medical and legal personnel concerning the legal, policy and ethical issues that affect children's health. Lastly, HeLP seeks to foster broader systemic changes by improving the access the children have to healthcare.
The grant will help to cover operating expenses for the project over the next three years by supporting the salaries of two full-time attorneys and a part-time attorney specializing in children's educational issues. In addition, some funds will be allocated to develop a legal clinic at GSU focused on children's health issues.
"I am delighted we have received this support," says Steve Gottlieb, Atlanta Legal Aid's executive director. "HeLP is one of the most exciting projects we have done in my 25 years as director. It will allow us to partner with private lawyers and with doctors and other health professionals to provide the best possible legal services to one of the most vulnerable populations we serve."
SUCCESS STORY FROM TEXAS RIOGRANDE LEGAL AID
(Legal aid is about helping ordinary people with real-life problems. Client stories from the field illustrate the day-to-day struggles - and victories - of poor Americans seeking justice under law.)
ABDUCTED 9-MONTH-OLD CHILD RECOVERED FROM MEXICO: TRLA REUNITES MOTHER WITH DAUGHTER
November 8, 2005
For 14 months, Maria Velasquez wondered if she would ever see her daughter again. Few parents can conceive of what their lives would be like if their children were taken from them. When her partner abducted her daughter to Mexico, Maria turned to Texas RioGrande Legal Aid.
After persistent pressure by TRLA on Mexican and American authorities, Velasquez's now two-year-old daughter was safely recovered from her partner's home in the state of Guanajuato, Mexico. Relying on the legal procedures established under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction, TRLA's Bi-National Project on Family Violence has now successfully recovered two children under a relatively unknown treaty intended to facilitate the return of children who are wrongfully taken to another country by one of their parents.
"Unfortunately the promise of the treaty has yet to be fully realized in terms of children taken to Mexico," said Pamela Brown, project attorney. "However we are committed to making it work for our clients. We believe that if more people affected by international child abduction are aware of the treaty and use it to seek recovery of their children, there will be more pressure on government officials to ensure that it functions as intended."
In May 2004, Velasquez's partner contacted her to meet in Houston to reconcile after being released from jail for domestic violence and assault. They met on a few occasions to discuss getting back together so that Velasquez' partner could visit with their baby. On one occasion, her partner said he was going to buy some milk at a nearby store and wanted to take the child along. Reluctantly Velasquez agreed, but she became suspicious when he hadn't returned within a reasonable amount of time. Velasquez immediately called 911, at which time her partner was actually heading to the bus station to buy tickets to Guanajuato.
In response, TRLA staff helped Velasquez file a Petition for Return of her daughter under the Hague Convention. The treaty states that courts in the child's country of habitual residence should decide custody of an abducted child. According to the U.S. Department of State, Mexico is the destination country of the greatest number of children parentally abducted from the United States.