The Department of Justice kicked off Wednesday a New York City branch of a federal program that partners lawyers with low-income residents in need of legal services.
The Federal Government Pro Bono Program was established in 1996. Under the program, federal government lawyers volunteer their time with legal services organizations and represent indigent defendants, often in cases involving landlord-tenant issues, domestic violence and family law or personal injury. (The lawyers are not permitted to represent criminal defendants or those facing deportation.) The program began in Washington, D.C., expanded to Chicago in 2008 and, as of this week, will also include federal government lawyers in New York City.
Laurence Tribe, senior counselor for Access to Justice, spoke at the launch Wednesday. Tribe, a renowned Harvard Law School professor, said he taught several students who have gone on to high-profile careers in the law — including President Barack Obama, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan. But Tribe said his work on indigent defense issues was “truly significant” and described it as both meaningful and rewarding.
“Law needs to be accessible to people in their communities, where they live and work and not just at courthouses and in detention facilities,” Tribe said in his remarks.
“To the people you will aid and the communities you will touch, it matters greatly that those reaching out to help them rescue their lives from disaster work for the federal government,” he said. “When it’s a federal employee who helps someone avoid a life-shattering mortgage foreclosure or finds a safe home for a victim of domestic violence, what is otherwise a remote and abstract commitment of a distant government becomes an immediate and concrete helping hand. …There’s just no doubt that you will all be doing something of enormous value in taking part in this pro bono program.”