What is the best role of the judiciary in promoting pro bono participation?
Courts can do a great deal. First, judges can publicly acknowledge and thank pro bono lawyers at the end of judicial proceedings, and speak out at public events about the lack of legal representation and the need for pro bono involvement by the private bar.
Perhaps more important, judges can actively help create and support limited representation models to address the vast number of unrepresented parties in areas such as family law and housing issues. Examples of limited representation models include the custody conciliation program in Pittsburgh (Allegheny County) and the tenant representation and mortage forecloure diversion projects in Philadelphia and other jurisdictions. Judges have beeen partners with lawyers, bar associations and municipalities on these.
Judges are instrumental in encouraging lawyers to do pro bono. For example, one of our local Dallas judges attends our monthly New Lawyer Luncheon to meet the new pro bono attorneys and encourage them. Our local judges also volunteer for a monthly evening Prove-Up docket at the courthouse, held at the end of the workday to make it convenient for pro bono attorneys to finalize their divorces, adoptions, name changes, etc. We have also had success with local judges speaking on judicial panels during CLE’s where attorneys have the option to pay for attending or take a pro bono case or two to attend the CLE for free. These are some key ways local judges support the work of the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program.
Oklahoma County Pro Se Waiver Divorce Docket Clinic
Oklahoma County domestic docket judges partner with pro bono attorneys, Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City University Law School, Oklahoma Child Support Services, Oklahoma County Law Library Staff and Board of Trustees, in a project designed to assist pro se litigants with access to justice in dissolution of marriage cases.
Often the pleadings pro se litigants present to the court are deficient in some way. In the past, judges have had to simply send them away, but now they are able to make referrals to the clinic. Of course, it is not a requirement for the litigants to speak with us, but most do request referral. Law students and volunteer attorneys sit in the courtroom and escort litigants to our clinic in the law library as referrals are made. Law students complete intake forms based upon information provided by the litigant. Each litigant signs a limited services agreement and is screened for domestic violence issues (referrals are made when appropriate).
We have found that a majority of people referred to us are low-income. Most of the time we are able to provide litigants with pleadings that enable them to get their divorce granted that day. The judges are very pleased with having the clinic in place, in fact, they identified the greatest need as being the pro se docket when we proposed a courthouse project to them. It is a great learning experience for the law students. We have had a few law students actually hired by the volunteer attorneys! It is a great pro bono opportunity for attorneys to spend 2-3 hours per month at the clinic, especially for those who are unable to accept cases. Clients come to the clinic frustrated and upset that their documents are not sufficient and most leave very grateful that they have the help of an attorney without any fee to them. This type of volunteerism is good for the reputation of the profession as a whole. Overall, the program has been a great success!
In my particular situation, our Superior Court Judges do not appear to educate or involve themselves in promoting services for pro se citizens. While the CA Superior Court system has self-help centers, they are limited in scope and availability.
In rural counties, there aren’t ANY pro bono attorneys or certified LDA’s.
Here’s one way to increase pro bono in Virginia– the Supreme Court of Virginia can restore my license to practice law. In 2010, the Virginia Court forced me to resign because, under the rules for attorneys admitted on motion, I was not practicing full-time, defined as 35 hours a week. The rule of the Supreme Court 1A:1(4)(c) does not require that a foreign attorney’s license be revoked when she does not practice 35 hours a week. It only says the court “may” do so. There is absolutely no reason why they would want to do that! I am 67 years old; I do not wish to work full-time; I wish only to practice a little pro-bono in Fairfax County, my home. I would not be taking bread out of the mouth of any other attorney. I have been an upstanding member of the DC bar since 1975. Why won’t Virginia allow me to practice law in my home State?
Fairfax Station, VA
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