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January 13, 2011

Vermont’s Celebrate Pro-Bono Conference

Vermont Supreme Court Justice Denise Johnson addressed about 150 judges, attorneys, legal service providers, community agencies and non-profits at Vermont’s first-ever Celebrate Pro-Bono Conference to mirror similar events throughout the country during National Pro Bono Week. The Vermont Bar Association organized the event. For those with a passion for access to justice and for those who want to understand the role of the Vermont Access to Justice Coalition, these are her remarks.

Vermont Access to Justice Coalition

I’m happy to welcome all of you to Montpelier. Today you’ll have an opportunity to find a role to play and be part of the solution to the problem of access to justice.

I’d like to give you some information on the scope of the problem and what we’ve done, through the Access to Justice Coalition, to try to address it.

About ten years ago, the Supreme Court formed the Committee on Equal Access to Legal Services to identify the civil legal needs of low-income Vermonters and study their access to the courts and legal services. The courts were already in the midst of the pro se explosion, brought on in part by the reduction in federal funding for legal services, which had been steadily declining while restrictions on what legal aid programs could do to represent clients were rising. We wanted to assess the extent of the legal needs of the poor in Vermont as well as the gaps in legal services and how reduced federal funding had affected the system. The Committee gathered financial assistance from the Court, the Agency of Human Services, the Legal Services Corporation, and the Vermont Community Foundation, as well as other partners to support the cost of hiring a marketing firm to do a survey based on a questionnaire that we developed with them. We already knew the need was great, but the goal was to obtain hard data from an independent source that could make state-wide projections from its data, so that we could use the data to develop policy and to support funding requests.

We undertook several different surveys. One was a random telephone marketing survey to the general public conducted by a professional firm. We also surveyed low-income households that would not necessarily have a telephone by another methodology. The pro bono committee of the bar surveyed lawyers to learn the amount of pro bono services being supplied by private attorneys and where that service was being delivered. The Court surveyed judges and court personnel asking for information not only about legal needs presented to the courts, but also about the effectiveness of court policies and procedures for handling pro se litigants.

The results of the various surveys were published in 2001 and revealed that low-income families in Vermont face more than 60,000 legal problems every year, from eviction and divorce to consumer problems and loss of government benefits. Very low-income households faced significantly more legal problems than those with only slightly higher incomes.

75% of low-income families faced their legal problem without help; this was true despite the fact that Vermont’s existing legal services organizations were doing the best they could with reduced resources. Of importance to the Court, in particular, was the fact that Vermonters who received legal assistance with their problems were more likely to believe that they were fairly treated than those who did not.

At the same time, 88% of Vermonters believed that legal help for civil legal problems should be provided to poor Vermonters who need it. 81% supported legislative funding for these services. Judges and lawyers surveyed also believed that the most effective solution to the unmet legal needs of the poor would be increased funding for legal services.

Many attorneys were willingly providing pro bono services, but only 43% were providing services to low-income litigants. The rest were providing services to non-profit entities dealing with low-income issues, working in advice clinics, or doing some other type of pro bono service for non-profits not related to the poor. Attorneys providing direct service to low-income litigants worked on a wide variety of legal problems, including family, juvenile, housing, probate, real estate, consumer or utility issues, employment, government benefits, health care, human rights, education and immigration.

The Committee decided there were three areas major areas that it should address to try to cover the gap between need and service. The first was to develop increased funding for legal services; the second was to provide improved pro se assistance; and the third was to increase pro bono efforts.

To implement these goals, the Court entered into a Joint Resolution Establishing an Access to Justice Coalition with the Vermont Bar Foundation, the Vermont Bar Association, Vermont Legal Aid, Inc., Legal Services LawLine of Vermont, Inc., and Vermont Law School. The Joint Resolution recognized the need to coordinate the activities of the member entities to ensure adequate funding, continuity and focus on access to justice issues. Our mission was to act like a statewide planning agency for legal services—to try to improve the delivery of services through those 3 goals, not only jointly, but through our individual entities.

We’ve had some success on each goal and I’ll mention a few.

Under increasing resources, the Coalition was the initiator of the bar fund-raising campaign that resulted in the establishment of the Vermont Poverty Law Fellowship, which is a two-year fellowship for a recent graduate to work on a special project within the context of a legal services agency. Spencer Knapp and the late Joan Wing chaired the first campaign. This is a campaign that put a lawyer on the ground. The first fellow, Grace Pazdan, worked on the foreclosure crisis as a Vermont Legal Aid attorney, directly representing clients in foreclosure, and was also successful, in partnership with the attorney general’s office and the financial industry, in passing mandatory mediation legislation. The new campaign is running under the direction of Tom Carlson and Stacy Chapman, and you will be hearing from the committee in the upcoming months. The second fellow, Jessica Radbord, has been hired and is working on safe housing issues.

A major source of income for legal aid now comes from IOLTA revenues, which are under the purview of the Vermont Bar Foundation. During this time a very successful effort was mounted by the banking committee of the VBF to negotiate rates with the banks to pay a rate that quickly became an above-market rate after the financial crisis, and has allowed Vermont to be much more insulated from the crisis than other states. This is an issue that needs close attention by the VBF because small variations in the rate have huge consequences. If you learn nothing else today, please take away this point: it matters where you put your trust account monies. Please look on the VBF website and find out what your bank is paying and how it compares to other banks—is it a gold level bank, paying the highest rate? If the information you need isn’t posted, call Debbie Bailey at the VBF. She will be able to tell you what the rate is for the financial institution in which you’re interested. VBF can talk to the banks, but what matters to banks are its customers. We know from experience that when lawyers question why their banks are not paying more, or have fallen off the gold level, and threaten to move their accounts, banks listen. You have the power to directly affect the rates—please consider going to a bank that is friendly to IOLTA.

We are also working at the Bar Foundation to fund innovative programs, including low bono programs, in an effort to expand services and increase lawyer participation, and also to fund more grants designed to provide direct legal services to low-income people. In other words, we’re trying to be more proactive about looking for the gaps in the delivery system and filling them.

With respect to the Coalition’s second goal—to improve pro se services—the recent court unification and the Court’s move to electronic filing, will make it easier for the court system to provide increased services to the self-represented population. When we move fully into electronic filing, we will be developing over the next few years, self-represented service centers, similar to those that exist in other state court systems. These are centers with personnel devoted to helping litigants, with computer terminals and access to the web. Two of the Coalition partners, the Court and LawLine of Vermont have engaged in a joint project to develop something called A2J software, which is similar to a program like Turbo Tax. It is a web-based interface that asks a series of questions and allows a person to complete a divorce complaint, for example. We have finished forms for the family division and are about to test those forms. We are moving on to other areas where self-represented litigants predominate—small claims, landlord tenant, and probate. In smaller courthouses, we will develop an assistance program that makes sense in light of lower demand. All of this will be ongoing for the next few years.

Finally, the third goal of the Coalition is directed at increasing pro bono efforts. As lawyers, you know that we can increase the amount of services for pro se litigants, but some cases just need a lawyer and pro se help isn’t enough. That is when you need to step up and volunteer. We now have two pro bono coordinators in the State. We have Angele Court, of the Vermont Volunteer Lawyers Project, which has been a long-standing project, and we have the VBA’s pro bono coordinator, Mary Ashcroft, and they have developed a partnership to increase pro bono participation by the bar. Mary will be talking more about those projects so I will leave that discussion to her. But I just want to say this—imagine a world in which every lawyer admitted to the bar does one pro bono case per year—just one. This service would exponentially increase the amount of pro bono being done in the state today—it’s a question of many hands making light work. Instead, our situation is that the same lawyers do pro bono over and over again—we need to spread this work around and not make too great a burden on anyone. And, as you will see, there is something for everybody to do. It’s not all family law.

With these approaches to increased funding, improved pro se services, and increased pro bono, can we meet every single legal need for a low-income person in the state? Probably not. The ultimate goal, in my view, is to develop a mechanism whereby we are able to identify what cases for low-income people must absolutely have a lawyer to obtain access to justice, and try to provide that lawyer free of charge, and try to help others help themselves, through the courts or through LawLine. That may be pie in the sky for several years to come, but at the very least, we can work on developing a comprehensive delivery system in this state that does not just depend on a single kind of entity, like legal aid programs, to deliver service everywhere. We can use pro se assistance, we can use pro bono services, we can use low bono programs, advice clinics and so forth to try to meet need.

In the coming months, the Access to Justice Coalition will be thinking about ways in which it can exercise greater leadership and work through its entities to improve access to justice for low-income people. We welcome your participation today in thinking about how to solve these problems and what role you might be willing to play in the solution.

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