By Don Resnikoff
As 2020 draws to a close, we look back on the advocacy we undertook to further our mission of ensuring that our legal system provides justice for everyone, regardless of money, position, or power. During this challenging year, we have taken action on the issues on which we have a longstanding track record of leadership and advocacy. As the pandemic began to affect our most vulnerable citizens and their access to legal services and the courts, we also swiftly pivoted to address these new challenges in the context of our ongoing work in improving access to justice for all individuals.
Funding for Civil Legal Services in the District of Columbia
Washington Council of Lawyers has consistently urged our local elected officials to provide sufficient funding for civil legal services for the underserved. This year was no exception. However, with the draconian effects of the Covid-19 virus affecting our community, we also focused our efforts on the increased need for legal services funding during the pandemic. Remote court hearings, limited access to self-help centers, and new procedures make navigating the court system even more difficult. Consequently, during the past year, we have advocated vigorously for enhanced financial support for access to justice and civil legal services programs. We have pointed out to local government officials that consistent and substantial support to civil legal aid must be part of the government’s policy response to the COVID-19 crisis.
Joining the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, the D.C. Bar Foundation, and many legal services organizations, we urged the Mayor to account for such funding in her fiscal year 2021 budget proposal. We followed up with written testimony to the D.C. Council, noting that the District of Columbia needed to not only maintain its current financial support for legal services but to afford additional support for civil legal aid groups, who are among the first responders helping Americans navigate the legal system during the COVID-19 crisis. The increased legal needs of those in the District – among others, individuals who missed rent or mortgage payments due to unemployment, and at-risk partners and children isolated in abusive homes – must, we contended, be met with increased funding for these much-needed services. The funding also supports the D.C. Poverty Lawyer Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP), which provides interest-free, forgivable loans of up to $12,000 per year to legal services lawyers who live and work in D.C. in order to increase the number of skilled lawyers serving low-income underserved D.C. residents. We were heartened by the D.C. Council’s response, as it not only maintained fiscal year 2020 funding levels of $11 million but secured an additional $1 million above that to support this critical need.
Access to Legal and Social Services During Covid-19
The pandemic affects much more than the need for increased legal services funding. Consequently, we joined with several other local legal services and nonprofits to urge senior officials in the D.C. government to take steps to facilitate client access to administrative proceedings. This is crucial to ensure that individuals have the opportunity to seek meaningful relief in administrative hearings when their public benefits are at stake.
Many people in the District of Columbia needed access to information about legal and social services available during Covid-19. Our Executive Director, Nancy Lopez, co-chaired a Covid-19 Information Resources subcommittee of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission. This subcommittee compiled information about legal and social services resources on www.LawHelp.org/DC and conducted outreach to bring this essential information to the community.
With regard to incidents of racism and xenophobia related to the pandemic, we joined other bar associations and law student organizations in issuing a statement condemning racism. We called for taking steps to educate the public, hold perpetrators accountable, and work together to combat racism.
We continued to provide opportunities for education and action through our Racial Justice Series, In October, we hosted Racism By Design: Where We Live, Why We Live There, and Why It Matters. which examined the history and impacts of racial discrimination in housing policies. A few weeks later, during DC Pro Bono Week, we hosted Advancing Racial Justice & Equity Through Pro Bono, which highlighted the tremendous need for pro bono lawyers to advocate against the injustices of racism, and offered concrete ways for lawyers to get involved.
Diploma Privilege in DC
As Covid-19 threatened to upend the usual administration of the July bar examination, we spearheaded an effort among local legal services organizations to urge the D.C. Court of Appeals to create a temporary diploma privilege for 2020 law school graduates. Seventeen legal non-profits joined our comments to the Court, in which we described the logistical hurdles facing those scheduled to take the bar examination, the disparate impact on low-income law students, including persons of color, and the fear that without diploma privilege there would be fewer attorneys to represent low-income litigants in the District. In response to the community advocacy on this issue, the D.C. Court of Appeals adopted, on an emergency basis, new D.C. App. R. 49(c)(8A) (Emergency Temporary Practice by Recent Law-School Graduates Under Supervision by D.C. Bar Member) and new D.C. App. R. 46-A (Admission to Bar Based on COVID-19 Emergency
Looking to the Future
Looking ahead to 2021, we will continue our traditional advocacy in the areas of legal services funding and other access to justice issues, knowing that we must also be nimble in addressing new concerns that arise as District of Columbia residents are tested by this pandemic. Between our long-lived commitment to access to justice and the resilience of our community, we have no doubt of our success.
We hope you will join our efforts! Learn more about our Advocacy Committee here.
Don Resnikoff is a member of the Washington Council of Lawyers Advocacy Committee.