The Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice made a public appearance today to mark the American Bar Association’s Pro Bono Week festivities.
Tony West, confirmed in April to his post at the top of the Civil Division after a January nomination, led a panel discussion with three lawyers who focused on getting legal aid to members of DC’s low income community.
“These are families that make less than $25,000 a year—roughly one million cases that are rejected every year. And that need is growing. This year alone, requests for services have risen by 30 percent or more in some areas of the country,” West said.
West added: “The government can’t solve this problem alone. We need to do more.”
The Obama administration would increase funding to the Legal Services Corporation, a national nonprofit created by Congress that uses government funding to provide legal services to America’s low income community, West said. It would also allow LSC lawyers to “collect fees, participate in class action lawsuits and ensure that non-LSC funds used by LSC grant recipients are not unfairly restricted.”
West led a panel of luminaries in the District’s pro bono world, featuring George Washington University professor Peter Edelman, Chair of the DC Access to Justice Commission; Maureen Syracuse, Director of the DC Bar Pro Bono Program and Chair of the DC Consortium of Legal Service Providers; and Eric Jackson, Vice Chairman of the DC Bar Pro Bono Committee and partner at Jenner& Block.
In wrestling with how to close what West referred to as the “justice gap,” the panelists spoke at length about economic problems plaguing the legal world.
Syracuse described the economic climate as a “perfect storm” for pro bono. While law firms are deferring or even rescinding new hires, more people are walking into the Pro Bono Program’s office looking for help to deal with debt, housing problems or tenants’ rights issues she said.
“There’s a great deal of pressure on nonprofit social services providers,” Syracuse said. “The coming year is going to be harder than the one we just finished.”
Edelman offered evidence from a report by the Access to Justice Commission. “The number of people not represented in courts is just astonishing,” he said, ticking off the following statistics: 98 percent of tenants who go to court over disputes with their landlords are not represented; 98 percent of domestic violence victims are unrepresented; 98 percent of domestic paternity plaintiffs are not represented.
These pro se cases have a much smaller chance of rulings in the plaintiff’s favor, Edelman said.
There were few ideas, however, about how to close the “justice gap.” The panelists seemed stumped by economic realities on the ground. Jackson echoed Syracuse’s dire forecasts of the legal job market. “These are just unprecedented times for law firms,” he said, with the layoffs and associate deferrals.
Syracuse told the audience that lawyers across Washington wanted to do more pro bono work.”The culture is still alive and well, though it’s existing in a very troubled time.”
Syracuse plugged efforts by her organization to reach out to Washington’s Spanish speaking community by holding open houses in Columbia Heights and other heavily Latino neighborhoods. “I probably haven’t been able to convey to you the number of people who have walked into our office,” Syracuse said.
Syracuse added: “We’re really hoping and counting on the government lawyers.”
Edelman told West that federal funding is “just vital” if private law firms and pro bono agencies were going to meet demand for free legal aid.