On May 22, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett and Board Member Jonann C. Chiles testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing entitled, "Closing the Justice Gap: Providing Civil Legal Assistance to Low-Income Americans."
Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., former Chairman of the Maryland Legal Services Corporation and a long-time supporter of legal aid in his home state, called the hearing to explore actions Congress could take to provide more low-income Americans with meaningful access to justice.
"When federal judges take their judicial oath prescribed in the United States Code, they swear to administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich,'" said Senator Cardin. "I am gravely concerned that our current civil justice system makes it difficult for judges to perform their proper function, when either one or both of the parties do not have access to a lawyer or legal assistance for serious cases."
Ms. Barnett testified about LSC's groundbreaking 2005 report entitled, Documenting the Justice Gap in America-The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans, which found that chronic funding shortages force LSC-funded programs to turn away 50 percent of eligible low-income Americans seeking their assistance. Statewide legal needs studies released since 2005 have consistently shown that LSC's report actually underestimates the total unmet need for civil legal services.
"All those committed to a civil society know that turning away half of the people who seek legal assistance is not acceptable," said Barnett. "Equal justice under law is a bedrock principle and these numbers do not reflect equal justice."
Ms. Chiles told the Committee about LSC's progress implementing reforms recommended by the Government Accountability Office in recent reports on the Corporation's governance and accountability, and grants management and oversight.
A second panel of legal aid experts and other witnesses consisted of Texas Civil District Court Judge Lora J. Livingston, who testified on behalf of the American Bar Association, Jo-Ann Wallace, President of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, Wilhelm H. Joseph, Executive Director of Maryland's Legal Aid Bureau, Kenneth F. Boehm, Chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, Jeanette M. Franzel from the Government Accountability Office, and Rebekah Diller from the Brennan Center for Justice.
Senator Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, submitted a statement for the record, as did Committee members Charles E. Grassley, R-IA, and Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
On May 20, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett visited Kentucky's Legal Aid of the Bluegrass to deliver remarks at a dedication ceremony for the organization's new headquarters and to speak at an awards ceremony honoring pro bono lawyers in northern Kentucky.
Prior to the ceremony, she met with the Board of the Directors of Legal Aid of the Bluegrass and thanked them for their dedicated service to the program.
The program's old headquarters, its home for 30 years, was housed in a 150-year-old building with no elevators, cramped conference areas, a shortage of offices, and an intake unit scattered throughout various parts of the building. The new headquarters has elevators to shuttle staff among the newly-renovated floors, more office space, new furniture, and a modern intake center with new computers and other appointments.
"This beautiful new space speaks of the dignity with which you treat the people who come here seeking help," said Ms. Barnett.
The following day, the Northern Kentucky Volunteer Lawyers program, which celebrates its 30-year anniversary this year, held its Annual Pro Bono Luncheon to honor three lawyers and two law students for their commitment to providing free legal services to the clients of Legal Aid of the Bluegrass. Distinguished members of the judiciary presented the awards to the attorneys. R. Kim Vocke, a solo practitioner in Covington, Ky., received the Attorney of the Year Award in recognition of her 30 years providing hundreds of hours of free services to legal aid clients. Debbie L. Davis, also a solo practitioner in Covington, received the Distinguished New Volunteer Award for accepting numerous pro bono cases as a new member of the program and for demonstrating exceptional commitment and concern for her clients. William R. Adkins, a solo practitioner in Williamstown, received the Nick of Time Award for accepting numerous referrals, often on short notice, to represent legal aid clients at court hearings. Dennis Honabach, Dean of the Salmon P. Chase College of Law, presented awards to Jeffery Sallee and Mary E. Wallingford, Chase law students, who were honored for their numerous hours of service at pro bono clinics and volunteer work for community organizations.
Ms. Barnett was the featured speaker at the event. She discussed the crucial importance of partnerships among legal aid programs and private attorneys, and highlighted LSC's private attorney involvement action plan, Help Close the Justice Gap-Unleash the Power of Pro Bono, which lays out a multi-pronged strategy for increasing pro bono involvement with legal aid programs.
On May 29, LSC President Helaine M. Barnett spoke at the Arizona Statewide Legal Services Conference in Phoenix, which brought together representatives from the three LSC-funded programs in the state, other statewide legal services providers, pro bono attorneys, and advocates from domestic violence shelters to discuss a wide range of issues of importance to the state's equal justice community.
Ms. Barnett opened the conference with an update on recent developments at LSC, including recent Congressional hearings on the justice gap and LSC's FY 2009 budget request, LSC's Board Meeting in Oklahoma City, Okla., and elements of LSC's Quality Agenda, including the revised Performance Criteria, Loan Repayment Assistance Program, Leadership Mentoring Pilot Program, and pro bono action plan.
She highlighted Arizona's recent statewide legal needs study, which found that more than 70 percent of low-income households do not believe they can afford an attorney, 81 percent did not know where to go for help with a civil legal problem, and the majority of Arizonans do not receive assistance when confronted with a civil legal problem.
Jose Padilla, Executive Director of California Rural Legal Assistance, delivered the luncheon address, where he spoke about the impact of the justice gap and the need to put a human face on the inequities that legal services attorneys work to eliminate.
The conference sessions addressed topics such as securing veterans benefits for soldiers returning from Iraq, dealing with burnout or compassion fatigue, using technology to promote a legal aid program, representing clients facing foreclosure, and Native American legal issues.
Ms. Barnett also visited Community Legal Services in Phoenix, where Executive Director Lillian O. Johnson arranged for her to meet members of the program's Board of Directors and management team, who presented on the program's work in a broad range of areas, and told numerous stories of meaningful victories secured for clients. Afterward, Ms. Barnett attended a reception where she met with the program's staff. The Arizona Foundation for Legal Services & Education hosted a dinner prior to the conference to encourage collaborations and partnerships among different stakeholders in the equal justice community. Ms. Barnett attended as the guest of honor, along with representatives from other funding organizations and the Executive Directors of the three LSC-funded programs in Arizona-Levon Henry from DNA-Peoples Legal Services, Lillian O. Johnson from Community Legal Services, and Anthony L. Young from Southern Arizona Legal Aid.
The Board of Directors of two more LSC-funded programs have adopted resolutions aimed at increasing the involvement of private attorneys in the delivery of legal services to their clients, bringing to 90 the total number of programs who have adopted such resolutions. The programs are:
LSC is encouraging all program Boards of Directors to adopt pro bono resolutions modeled after one adopted by LSC's Board in April 2007. Urging programs to adopt local resolutions is a key element of LSC's private attorney involvement action plan, entitled Help Close the Justice Gap, Unleash the Power of Pro Bono.
Jeanie Deason of Dickson, Tenn., has the dubious honor of membership in one of the world's most exclusive clubs. The 48-year-old woman is one of 200 to 250 people worldwide who suffer from Nephrogenic Systemic Fibrosis, a painful disease which causes the victim's skin to become thick and hard, freezing limbs in bent positions.
When Deason asked the state's Medicaid program, TennCare, to cover an experimental treatment shown to improve mobility, she ran into a roadblock all too familiar to sufferers of rare diseases. TennCare refused to cover any treatment not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but there are almost never FDA-approved treatments for rare diseases because research funding is so scarce for ailments affecting so few people.
That is where the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands stepped in. "TennCare wasn't reading its own regulations right," said Kevin Fowler, Deason's attorney. "The rule stated that experimental treatments can not be approved, except when medically necessary. This was a clear-cut case of a treatment being medically necessary, and one that had been proven-albeit in limited tests-to be effective."
The judge in the case agreed, finding that there was no evidence to support TennCare's denial of coverage. The agency has chosen not to appeal, and Deason will begin receiving the treatment in the near future.
Sister Helen Prejean, world-renowned anti-death penalty activist and author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Dead Man Walking, was the keynote speaker at the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri's (LSEM) pro bono awards dinner on May 21.
Prejean spoke to the more than 200 attendees about her work with death row inmates, and how her experience has impressed upon her the vital importance of providing legal counsel for people facing dire consequences.
"We are excited to have Sister Helen Prejean at our dinner as we recognize the men and women in the St. Louis legal community who have contributed immeasurably to helping Legal Services of Eastern Missouri serve more clients by accepting cases on a volunteer basis," said LSEM Executive Director and General Counsel Daniel K. Glazier in a press release announcing the event.
The pro bono honorees were recognized for playing a pivotal role in LSEM's volunteer lawyers program, which connects over 500 clients a year with private attorneys willing to handle cases for free. The award-winners were Suzanne Brown, a solo practitioner; Kristopher Lyle of Husch, Blackwell Sanders; Deron Sugg of Breeze, Roberts, Ponder-Bates & Zimmer; Elizabeth Christmas, Attorney at Law; and Mark Kaltenreider of Carmody MacDonald. One of the awards was named after F. Wm. McCalpin, a former Member of LSC's Board of Directors and long-time supporter of civil legal aid to the poor.
Visitors to Pro Bono Net's nationwide network of legal assistance web sites, funded in part by LSC's Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program, can avail themselves of volumes of free legal self-help information and other crucial resources for solving their legal problems...if they know where to look. For those unfamiliar with the use of technology, or who feel overwhelmed by the amount of information available, a software program called LiveHelp can direct people to the information they need.
Developed by software company LivePerson as a tool to help companies improve customer service, LiveHelp allows web site visitors to chat with trained specialists who can direct them to the information they need. Thanks to TIG-funding from LSC, LiveHelp was initially employed on statewide legal assistance web sites in Montana and Iowa, and has since been incorporated into sites in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and-as of this month-Minnesota.
A new case study by LivePerson shows how LiveHelp has produced tangible positive results for users of the service, and "is a highly valuable addition to the access to justice delivery system."
"After a comprehensive evaluation, our pilot project using LivePerson was found to be an important success," said Liz Keith, LiveHelp Project Manager for Pro Bono Net. "LiveHelp enables Pro Bono Net partners to more effectively serve low-income people, and ensure that people needing extra help on the web sites can find the legal resources they need to protect their rights."
Maxine Ketcher, a senior staff attorney and community outreach specialist at Legal Services NYC-Bronx was one of 5 recipients of the New York City Bar Association's Nineteenth Annual Legal Services Awards. The Legal Services Awards recognize attorneys and non-attorneys who provide outstanding civil legal assistance to New York City's poor.
Legal Services Award recipient Maxine Ketcher with colleagues (left to right) Nancy Yanofsky, Pascale Nijhof, Caroline Kearney, Andrew Scherer, Steve Telzak, Nanette Schorr, Barbara Winter, Lucy Rodriguez, Jeanne Perry, and Sandra Ross.
Ms. Ketcher received the Award in recognition of her more than 20 years of service to low-income Bronx clients in family law matters, and her outstanding dedication to educating parents and children about their rights through widespread community education.
The awards were presented by Hon. Carmen Cipatrick, Judge, New York State Court of Appeals, on Thursday, May 15th at the Association.
The National Association of Area Agencies on Aging and the MetLife Foundation have honored private attorney Ralph Livingstone with its 2008 Older Volunteers Enrich America Award for his years of service to Legal Services of Northern California's Senior Legal Hotline.
The hotline provides free legal information, advice and brief services to Californians over 60. Since 2000, Livingstone has been a valuable member of the hotline's volunteer team, serving as mentor to new members and providing hundreds of hours of free services a year, especially with issues surrounding foreclosure and predatory lending. Livingstone provided 700 hours of service in 2007 and is on track to provide even more this year.
"Callers certainly appreciate speaking to a law student or young staff attorney, but there's a dose of added empathy and generational affinity that occurs when the volunteer is the same age as our clients," said David Mandel, Supervising Attorney of the hotline. "Ralph has not only put in far more hours than any other volunteer in the past 18 months, but he has jumped in with both feet to help us meet the crush of calls regarding predatory lending and foreclosure threats."
The LSC Resource Information (LRI) is an online clearinghouse of best practices, model projects, and other resources for LSC-funded programs.
New York's statewide legal assistance web site, LawHelp.org/NY, recently launched a new section providing valuable legal information on preventing internet fraud and other online crimes. The information-from law enforcement agencies, non-profit online safety groups, and government agencies-covers topics such as e-mail scams, spam, phishing, pharming, and was chosen by a team of experts for accuracy and usefulness.
Legal aid is about helping ordinary people with real-life problems. Client stories illustrate the day-to-day struggles-and victories-of poor Americans seeking justice under law.
Andy Phelan, The Champion (GA) – May 21, 2008
They could have just come to widow R.L. Clark's Decatur home in the dark of night, held her up at gunpoint and made off with her cash.
Instead the thieves stole from the 65-year-old retired hairstylist each month, slowly bleeding the senior citizen of thousands of dollars.
Predatory lenders with their toxic mortgage products, the cause of so much destruction in the national and state subprime mortgage meltdown, got a hold of Clark and she nearly lost her home.
But now, thanks to the DeKalb branch of Atlanta Legal Aid Society's Home Defense Program, Clark is free and clear.
Once on the verge of losing her home of 31 years to foreclosure on the steps of the county courthouse, Clark is staying in the three-bedroom ranch she and her husband bought in 1977-and where the couple raised their three children.
And it's giving her a new lease on life.
"What a relief," said Clark, wiping away a tear as she signed her new deal. "I can finally sleep tonight."
Using what is called a reverse mortgage, Atlanta Legal Aid convinced the servicer of Clark's loan to take a lump sum in order to get her from under the burdensome payments.
A reverse mortgage, once a way for homeowners 62 or older with equity to get a little extra cash during retirement, are now used more and more to prevent senior citizens from being foreclosed on when they can no longer afford high-interest payments.
They are called reverse mortgages because the bank pays the homeowner instead of the other way around. They require no monthly payments as long as the person lives in the home, but they must be repaid in full, including interest, when the homeowner dies or their heirs sell the house.
In Clark's case, she was taken advantage of by Mortgage Lenders Network USA of Alpharetta, said William J. Brennan Jr., program director of Legal Aid's Home Defense Program in downtown Decatur.
"They [the loan originator] not only incorrectly stated Mrs. Clark's income as $3,000 a month to qualify her for the loan, but then charged her an outrageous interest rate" said Brennan, a 40-year veteran of the fight against fraud and predatory lending. "The loan was made in violation of Georgia law, violated the Fair Business Practices Act and the Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Toward the Elderly Act," Brennan asserted.
Before she knew it, Clark owed more than $140,000 on a home she originally purchased for $41,000. The house is now appraised for $173,500.
Mortgage Lenders Network USA, at the time it wrote Clark's loan, was the 15th largest subprime lender in the U.S. After receiving cease and desist orders from several states for failing to properly document their lines of credit, Network USA reorganized – filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January 2007.
Mortgage Lenders Network USA's license was revoked in February 2007 after failing to comply with state banking requirements.
For Clark, she hopes to be around for another 20 years to enjoy her home, her children and her grandchildren.
"I know I'm one of the lucky one to be able to keep my house," Clark said. "It's a blessing."