On October 24, 2022, we started off DC Pro Bono Week with our official kick-off event, Pro Bono Goes Local! Our panelists began with a lightning round covering where the need for pro bono attorneys exists within our community by highlighting the nuances of our community, statistics that drive their work, and where they see the gaps in justice for District neighbors. Our panelists included Faiza Majeed, Supervising Attorney in the Housing Law Unit of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia; Erin Scheick, Managing Attorney for Family and Immigration at Bread for the City; Bradford Voegeli, Director of Private Attorney Involvement at Neighborhood Legal Services Program; Crystal Fleming, Managing Attorney at Kids in Need of Defense; and Tina Nelson, Managing Attorney at Legal Counsel for the Elderly. Our conversation concluded with Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby from the D.C. Court of Appeals, and Chief Judge Josey-Herring from the Superior Court for the District of Columbia, discussing the impact of pro bono representation in DC courts.
Support Stable Housing in DC
Faiza highlighted the rising need for pro bono representation in Landlord and Tenant Court given the exponential growth of eviction defense cases with fewer protections for renters than before. During the pandemic, there was an eviction and filing moratorium and a federal rent assistance program called STAY DC. Today, the moratoriums have ended and the STAY DC program has closed. While the DC Council has passed some renters protections, tenants still face an uphill battle. In housing cases, 95% of landlords are represented, but only 10% of tenants are represented. With an attorney, a tenant is sixteen times more likely to raise a contested issue and eight times less likely to have a judgment entered against them. Pro bono representation is necessary to help alleviate the affordable housing crisis in DC and stop the displacement of communities of color that have called the District home for generations. Since 2000, DC has lost half of its low-cost rental units and over 20,000 Black households have been displaced. Pro bono representation is vital to keeping residents in their homes. With the help of Legal Aid mentors, templates, and recorded trainings you can help create stable futures for residents of DC.
Support Survivors Seeking Safety
Erin discussed the opportunities for pro bono representation in domestic violence cases and highlighted the support Bread for the City provides attorneys taking on pro bono cases. Bread for the City primarily places civil protection order cases with pro bono attorneys and provides mentorship to attorneys throughout the process. All of the cases are screened and placed with a pro bono attorney who is available for the hearing date. Bread for the City provides mentorship to pro bono attorneys through reviewing case prep documents, talking through strategy, as well as through trainings either pre-recorded or in-person. Pro bono attorneys can get great litigation and case prep experience while doing good in their community with ample support. Bread for the City also offers other opportunities to do pro bono in their identification, housing, and public benefits projects. Bread for the City is a community-based organization with a number of community-based programs including medical and dental clinics, a food pantry, a clothing room, wrap-around social services, and legal services. There are a variety of ways you can help Bread for the City serve District residents.
Support DC Residents Sealing Criminal Records
Bradford talked about Neighborhood Legal Services Program and their need for pro bono attorneys in criminal record sealing cases. Given the current legal landscape in DC, a person’s criminal record can follow them for decades, regardless of severity, meaning an arrest without a conviction can show up on a person’s record their entire life. In the District, there are no laws that automatically seal a person’s record and residents with criminal records face barriers when background checks prevent access to stable employment, stable housing, and may create barriers to fully engaging with family. However, pro bono lawyers can help. Not only can you help someone get back on track, but you can help fight systemic racism. In DC, 50% of the population is Black, but Black people make up 90% of the DC jail population. In assisting with criminal record sealing, pro bono attorneys can help combat racial injustice pervasive in the legal system, and assist DC residents seeking a future with stable employment, housing, and strong family connections. The Neighborhood Legal Services Program prepares attorneys to take cases through materials, recorded trainings, and mentoring. These opportunities are open to attorneys not living within the District, as long as a member of the team is a member of the DC Bar.
Support Unaccompanied Children in Active Removal Cases
Crystal illustrated the need for pro bono attorneys in assisting unaccompanied immigrant children and the work KIND does to support pro bono lawyers. KIND represents unaccompanied children in active removal proceedings to help them stay in the United States. 95% of the children that KIND represents are from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Most of the children are fleeing gang violence, domestic violence, sexual violence, and persecution. Many qualify for asylum and special immigrant juvenile status, however, 90% of children that are not represented are deported. There has been an exponential rise in the need for the representation of children in active removal proceedings since 2020. In DC, only 48 children were released in 2020. In 2021, that number went up to 300 children and by August of 2022, over 400 children have been released that need representation. Without the assistance of pro bono attorneys, these children are at greater risk of being returned to violent situations. KIND supports their pro bono lawyers throughout the case.
Support District Elders Navigate a Variety of Needs
Tina provided a breakdown of the opportunities Legal Counsel for the Elderly provides for pro bono attorneys to get involved with the free legal services elders need in the community to ensure stable housing, economic security, self-determination, and health and safety. Pro Bono assistance is needed in every practice group. Economic and Healthcare Security Group needs your help in simple and complex probate cases to keep wealth with clients and maintain generational wealth. The Housing Unit has seen a spike in eviction filings and without the moratoriums and STAY DC elders need legal assistance to maintain stable housing. The Consumer Advocacy and Homeownership Preservation Team helps elders combat scam artists and predatory investors who target older homeowners by helping to unwind unconscionable contracts and outright theft. The Schedule H Group helps senior renters and homeowners get income tax rebates. The LCEs Hotline is a way for volunteer lawyers at or close to the end of their legal career to provide advice to low-income seniors over the phone. There are many ways to get involved with Legal Counsel for the Elderly to ensure the stability, health, and safety of our community elders.
Pro Bono Service in the Courts
Chief Judge Blackburne-Rigsby from the Court of Appeals highlighted the need for pro bono volunteers at the appellate level. The Court of Appeals is seeing an increasing number of people trying to navigate their appeals without a lawyer. An example of this is in administrative agency cases for public benefits, 50% of litigants do not have attorneys. With representation, these litigants would see their deserved benefits in a more timely manner. Pro bono lawyers can also assist in mediation. The appellate mediation program is most successful when both sides are represented by counsel.
Chief Judge Josey-Herring from the Superior Court of the District of Columbia emphasized a warm appreciation for the work of pro bono volunteers. Pro bono lawyers assist in saving time, money, and effort for both litigants and the court. The work of pro bono attorneys makes it possible for the court to be open to all and find justice for all. There are also committees within the Superior Court that offer opportunities to get involved including the Pro Bono and Low Bono Committee.