The DC Bar Foundation recently announced the 2017 recipients of the Access to Justice Grants Program, which awards grants to DC-based organizations that provide free legal help to low-income DC residents. This year, over $4.5 million was awarded to more than thirty DC-based legal services providers, including more than $3 million in grant funding for providers assisting residents of underserved areas. In 2016, Access to Justice grantees served nearly 23,000 DC residents, 52 percent of whom live in Wards 7 and 8. In addition to the multiple legal services providers receiving grants to assist low-income and vulnerable citizens across DC, several grants will benefit East of the River residents directly. One new grantee for 2017, Tzedek DC, received funding to assist low-income DC residents in debt-related legal matters, including providing community outreach by partnering with the United Planning Organization in Ward 7. Bread for the City received continued funding for its community lawyering work at its offices on Good Hope Road SE. The project’s attorneys work directly with the community to help identify options to tackle issues affecting its residents and, when needed, provide substantial direct representation to the residents. The project focuses on affordable housing, housing conditions, and hiring practices. The grant awarded to Whitman-Walker Health will provide legal representation, counseling, and outreach to people living with HIV/AIDS and other low-income residents East of the River, through lawyers based at its Max Robinson Center in Southeast DC. Whitman-Walker offers free legal aid to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals in DC, regardless of HIV status, and to health care patients regardless of sexual orientation, HIV status, and gender identity. Children’s Law Center received continued funding for its Healthy Together Medical-Legal Partnerships with Unity Healthcare’s Minnesota Avenue clinic in Northeast DC, and with clinics in Southeast DC. In this medical-legal collaboration, the lawyers provide services through the Unity Healthcare clinic and two Southeast clinics of the Children’s National Medical Center, working with families of CNMC patients to identify and resolve non-medical solutions to children’s health issues. Neighborhood Legal Services Program received continued funding to provide neighborhood-based legal aid in the areas of housing, family law, and public benefits through NLSP’s office Ward 7 on Polk Street NE, which will provide low-income residents of this underserved community with free and accessible legal assistance. And the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia received continued public funding to support their Southeast Neighborhood Access Project, which provides clients with access to lawyers who work in two neighborhood offices in Wards 7 and 8.
By Craig Welkener As DC's affordable housing crisis deepens, Beth Harrison and other advocates have created an innovative program for people on the brink of eviction, pushing the boundaries of what has been possible in legal aid. By identifying at-risk tenants even before their eviction notices arrive, the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project is making real help more available than ever before. Although housing laws in the District are complex, the vast majority of individuals facing eviction are too poor to pay for an attorney. Legal services have historically been limited to those with the time to track down a nonprofit lawyer ahead of time, or those who take advantage of last minute, on-the-spot help provided by the Landlord Tenant Court-Based Legal Services Project. That project, which provides housing attorneys on a same-day basis, was funded by the city in 2007. However, that paradigm has begun to change, with the start of the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project. Beth Harrison, the director of the project, has worked in the trenches from the beginning. After earning her law degree from Harvard, Harrison arrived at the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia in 2005 as an entry-level housing attorney. At that time, Legal Aid's housing law program consisted of only three full-time staff attorneys, one fellow, and two loaned attorneys from law firms. The work received a boost in 2007, when the DC Council appropriated funds to subsidize legal counsel for the poor. Legal Aid's housing work has grown since then to twelve permanent lawyers and three loaned associates. As Harrison explains, these changes have meant that advocates can serve more clients, and "a big piece of that has been the city's choice to appropriate that funding." But vast gaps remain. The DC Bar Pro Bono Center reports that currently 95% of tenants remain unrepresented, while 90% to 95% of landlords pay for an attorney. Systemic problems call for sustainable solutions. And the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project—run by Legal Aid, Bread for the City, Legal Counsel for the Elderly, and the DC Bar Pro Bono Center—is futuristic in its design. "We are reviewing all eviction cases as they are filed with the court," Harrison explains. For approximately one out of every seven cases involving subsidized housing, "we send a letter saying we want to represent you." If the tenant accepts the help, a lawyer begins working on their case pro bono—even before the tenant receives an eviction notice. The program began in 2015, and relies on a smorgasbord of local nonprofits and law firm pro bono work to accomplish the mission. By providing help exactly when people can use it the most, the Housing Right to Counsel Pilot Project has the potential to truly change the norm of the unrepresented tenant. Perhaps this is the wave of the future. Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan McDuffie recently introduced the Expanding Access to Justice Act of 2016, which would increase funding for similar housing projects. Guaranteeing a broad “right to counsel … in civil cases involving fundamental human needs" is McDuffie’s long-term goal. Harrison is certainly inspired. "The legal work that we do here is incredibly challenging and rich. And the interaction with the clients of course is an ongoing benefit. It's an ongoing inspiration to keep doing the work." Craig Welkener is a volunteer with the Washington Council of Lawyers, a Ward 8 resident, and a Georgetown graduate clerking at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces.
By Aleta Sprague Our event next week at the Center for American Progress will explore a crucial issue facing the legal community: with legal services in crisis, how can lawyers, advocates, and policymakers ensure access to justice for low-income families? A key driver of the crisis, of course, is inadequate funding. This will come as no surprise to any legal services attorneys reading this post, but the magnitude of the problem is staggering. Over the past three decades, Congress has cut the Legal Service Corporation's budget by about seventy percent. Because LSC provides funding to about 134 legal aid programs--that employ approximately 58% of the attorneys working to provide legal aid–these organizations are scaling back. Indeed, a recent survey revealed that LSC-funded organizations anticipated laying off 13.3% of their attorneys between 2010 and 2012, along with 15.4% of their paralegals and 12.7% of their support staff. For every attorney who is let go, between two and three hundred fewer clients will be served. And with the proportion of eligible legal aid clients accessing services already below 20%, any further cuts would be devastating. At the same time, due to the recession, the need for legal services has never been greater—particularly for those facing debt and foreclosure. In 2008, LSC organizations handled 31,653 bankruptcy and debt relief cases; this number rose to 39,346 cases in 2010. Foreclosures reflect a similar trend; in New York, foreclosure cases rose by 683% between 2007 and 2011, and the cases “sit in the system” for an average of two and a half years. Legal aid lawyers assist clients in foreclosure through loan modifications, mediation, and providing representation in foreclosure proceedings. These attorneys also were among the first to identify the “robo-signing” scandal in 2010. Still, a recent report from the Brennan Center for Justice revealed that the vast majority of families facing foreclosure in most states are not represented by counsel. In New Jersey, for example, 92.9% of the defendants in foreclosure cases in 2010 had no attorneys on record. The practical impacts of these trends can be devastating. As the report documented, unrepresented parties in foreclosure proceedings often fail to present key pieces of evidence that could make a difference between staying in their homes or being out on the street. According to testimony from Martin Mack, the Executive Deputy Attorney General of New York, “[T]he lack of individual representation in foreclosure actions is one reason we have seen systemic abuses of the legal system by lenders and debt collectors.” These types of hurdles extend beyond foreclosure cases. Litigants trying to access or reinstate their public benefits, secure a protection order, or file a discrimination claim will also encounter a range of unfamiliar processes, rules, and language that put them at a distinct disadvantage in court. So that’s the bad news. Now what do we do about it? What’s the role of the pro bono community? Barring universal representation, how can we best serve the needs of unrepresented litigants? We’ll start answering these questions in our post on Monday, and be sure to attend the event on Tuesday as we explore some ideas, strategies, and solutions.