Demand Is High for Pro Bono Legal Help 6/25/14 06/24/14 9:57:25 PM
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In this file photo, Joe Dreesen of Jackson Lewis P.C. confers with Jean McNeil, NSBA’s director of legal services, at the Self Help Desk where he volunteers regularly. His firm’s attorneys are expected to volunteer at least 50 pro bono hours per year.
Demand Is High for Pro Bono Legal Help
By Elizabeth Elliott
The Daily Record
Out of the Nebraska Supreme Court ruling about the Nebraska State Bar that created a “hybrid” bar – one in which members have mandatory dues paid to the Supreme Court and voluntary dues paid to the State Bar, instead of the entire amount being mandatory – one thing became clear. Funds would be harder to come by for the programs of the State Bar, including its many forms of aid to those in need. Volunteers are needed now more than ever because of the ripple effect on all programs designed to help those in need of legal assistance.
Everyone should have access to help when it comes to legal issues and representation. It can be costly, but there are programs in place to help, programs that may be taking a financial hit in the coming years.
One such organization in Nebraska that provides volunteer legal assistance and is a referral network is the Nebraska State Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP). The VLP was designed to provide pro bono legal assistance to low-income persons who cannot hire lawyers and who cannot receive assistance through the federally funded legal services program operating in the state.
Tim O’Brien, a partner at the Omaha law firm of Hauptman, O’Brien, Wolf & Lathrop, said the unmet civil legal need in Nebraska is great.
“In 2012, VLP received more than 13,362 calls for assistance. More than 420 cases were placed with volunteer lawyers and another 3,480 were served through Self Help Desks in Grand Island, Kearney, Lincoln, Madison and Omaha,” said O’Brien. “Yet more than 1,308 eligible clients were turned away due to a lack of resources.”
O’Brien and his wife Melany, also a partner at Hauptman, O’Brien, were co-chairs of this year’s annual Barristers’ Ball, a fundraiser for the VLP. He said a record 400-plus people attended the ball.
“Proceeds from last year’s Barristers Ball assisted in funding legal representation for victims of domestic violence, provided financial support for the Self Help Desks, helped pay litigation expenses associated with cases placed with volunteer attorneys, as well as training for VLP volunteers,” said Tim.
“The mission of The Nebraska Lawyers Foundation is to serve the public and the legal profession by securing contributions to support programs dedicated to the improvement of the legal profession and the administration of justice,” he said. Contributions fund “programs like the Nebraska Lawyers Assistance Program, the Minority Justice Committee and the Volunteer Lawyers Project. The proceeds from the 2014 Ball have been earmarked for the Volunteer Lawyers Project.
“In addition to the generous financial support that attorneys from Hauptman, O’Brien make to the Volunteer Lawyers Project through the Nebraska Lawyers Foundation, two [of our] attorneys regularly accept cases from the VLP,” he added.
VLP coordinates and staffs the Self Help Desks located in Buffalo (Kearney), Hall (Grand Island), Lancaster (Lincoln) and Madison (Northeast Nebraska) Counties, as well as the Self Help Desk in the Douglas County Courthouse in Omaha. VLP is working to establish a Self Help Desk in Scotts Bluff County and to formalize a partnership with the Phelps County Bar Association, which started a Self Help Desk in Holdrege in 2013.
A similar service is available to military personnel at the Offutt AFB Law Center in Bellevue.
Pro se litigants who seek help at these desks can receive limited legal advice, get assistance in completing forms and have volunteer attorneys talk them through the legal process. The attorneys who work at the Self-Help Desks do not usually perform legal research or draft documents.
Legal Aid of Nebraska is another organization that has been affected by the State Bar’s budget cuts.
“One major impact has been the reduced funding to the Nebraska State Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers’ Project,” said Dave Pantos, executive director of Legal Aid of Nebraska. “Legal Aid was previously able to refer cases we could not take to VLP. The amount of cases we can now refer has been greatly reduced.”
Legal Aid of Nebraska runs the Access to Justice Centers in Omaha and Lincoln, which help about 2,400 people per year. Nebraskans who earn less than 125 percent of the Federal Poverty Level are qualified to receive help through the Access to Justice Centers, according to Pantos.
“For a family of four, that’s about $30,000 per year,” he said. “I estimate about 20 percent of Nebraskans fit this definition.”
“The main goal is to empower clients of the Access to Justice Centers to be able to resolve their legal problems on their own. We do this through a model called ‘Assisted Self-Representation,’” said Pantos. “Through clinics, automated legal pleadings and other unique tools, Access to Justice clients learn how to make a difference in their own lives. It’s amazing how great these clients feel after they finally can see how ‘the system’ can actually work for their betterment.”
The clinics assist people in representing themselves in three areas. These are child support modifications, criminal conviction set-asides and Chapter 7 bankruptcies.
“These are three areas that most readily lend themselves to the clinic setting, where the client can resolve their legal matter using the tools taught in the clinic,” said Pantos.
“We have several bilingual attorneys and support staff and we help over 150 Spanish-speakers in Omaha per year,” he said. “We also offer phone interpretation services for clients in every language.”
When asked how many volunteer attorneys are an ideal number, Pantos said there are several volunteer lawyers but “we are not close to the ideal number. If 50 percent of the active licensed attorneys throughout Nebraska agreed to take two cases per year, we would be able to increase our capacity by 500 percent and come close to eliminating the civil justice gap in the Cornhusker State.”
There is some good news for organizations like Legal Aid of Nebraska. According to Pantos, Congress recently appropriated $2.5 million to “support new and innovative projects that promote and enhance pro bono initiatives throughout the country.” Organizations such as Legal Aid of Nebraska are eligible to apply for at least $50,000 of the funds to stimulate pro bono initiatives.
“This congressional funding is to be celebrated. I was part of the federal Legal Services Corporation Task Force that made the recommendation for this funding,” said Pantos. “This type of federal support for pro bono has never happened before. It will provide local funding to establish innovative pro bono programs. I can see that working in Nebraska in the area of medical legal partnerships, mental health and veterans’ services.”
O’Brien also believes the appropriation will help ensure equal access to the justice system.
“We hope that Legal Aid of Nebraska is able to access some of that appropriation to help meet the unmet civil legal needs here in Nebraska,” he said. “Because not everyone is eligible for assistance by Legal Aid of Nebraska, the appropriation unfortunately does not negate the need for other low-income legal service providers and pro bono efforts.”
“The desired impact of our new pro bono initiative is to increase access to justice in Nebraska by involving and engaging private attorneys in providing free legal services for low-income Nebraskans,” Pantos said. “This will increase our capacity to serve, which will better address the problem of unrepresented low-income litigants in crucial civil legal matters.”
The Nebraska Lawyers Foundation’s “One Hour of Sharing” campaign allows participation by lawyers either through performance of pro bono services for low income clients or donation of funds “in lieu of services” to the campaign.
Help is there, but only so far as lawyers step up to volunteer their time and/or money to assist low income clients. With the State Bar’s purse strings tightened, volunteerism is needed more than ever.
– Additional reporting by Lorraine Boyd