Civil Legal Services

  • April 6, 2012
    Guest Post

    By Laura Abel, Deputy Director, National Center for Access to Justice. This piece is cross-posted at NCAJ’s blog.

    The Department of Justice has released startling evidence that language barriers are leading to serious injustices in courts in North Carolina. In a March 8 letter, DOJ warned North Carolina that its ongoing failure to provide court interpreters in civil cases, and in some criminal cases, violates the federal Civil Rights Act, which bars courts and other recipients of federal funding from providing worse services to people on the basis of English language ability.  

    DOJ reports that prosecutors in Wake and Durham counties ask people with limited English proficiency to plead guilty and then, assuming the role of “interpreters,” convey the guilty pleas to the courts. A judge relying solely on “prosecutorial interpreting” cannot know whether the person is even aware that a guilty plea is being entered, much less whether he understands the charges and consequences. When the federal government then deports the person, it cannot know whether it is deporting an innocent person. 

    The quality of justice is equally in doubt in civil cases. In 2010, a mother in Wake County lost permanent custody of her children after a trial in which she struggled to understand basic facts because she had limited command of the English language. Although she told the judge about her language difficulty, the court provided no interpreter. She also had no lawyer to help. Communication was so poor that at the end of the case she did not even understand that the judge’s ruling would cause her to lose her children.

  • December 9, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Peter B. Edelman, a longtime champion of fighting poverty in American, was honored this week with a humanitarian award from the D.C. Commission on Human Rights and the D.C. Office of Human Rights. 

    The D.C. human rights offices presented Edelman with its annual Cornelius R. “Neil” Alexander Humanitarian Award on Dec. 8. Edelman (pictured), the newly elected ACS Board Chair, is a professor at Georgetown Law. Edelman’s distinguished career has included work for Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was an eloquent and forceful tribune of the nation’s oppressed, especially African and Native Americans or the “disaffected.”

    In a press statement regarding its Award, the D.C. Office of Human Rights says Edelman’s “name is near the top of any list of people who have worked to make poverty and economic justice front-burner issues in the United States. He has spent much of the last four decades working to make the nation focus on poverty and find solutions that would make a difference, including being at the forefront of concerted efforts to make the welfare system more responsible, productive, and accountable, attempting to do so without making it harsh or inhumane.”

  • November 21, 2011

    by Nicole Flatow

    Proposed legislation advanced in the House last week that would limit reimbursement of costs and attorneys’ fees in lawsuits seeking to hold the federal government accountable.

    The Government Litigation Savings Act is being called a “de facto bar to the courthouse door for low income citizens and other parties that do not have access to free legal counsel” by a coalition of 25 public interest legal groups.

     “Contrary to the title of the bill, H.R. 1996 is a thinly disguised effort to prohibit litigation against the government by the needy and public interest groups,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. before the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to approve the bill.

    The measure seeks to roll back some provisions of the Equal Access to Justice Act, enacted in 1980 with bipartisan support to narrow the disparity in resources when the “little guy” goes up against the federal government in a legal action, by granting the costs of litigation and attorneys’ fees to citizens, nonprofits and small businesses when they can show that the federal government’s position was not “substantially justified.”

    "One of the key insights of the legislators who gave birth to EAJA was recognition of a relationship between encouraging individuals and entities to challenge unreasonable governmental action and the positive effect that such challenges have in implementing public policy for the benefit of Americans generally," explains Brian Wolfman, co-director of Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Public Representation, in written testimony opposing H.R. 1996.

    But the now-pending bill would roll back several key provisions of the EAJA. It would, among other things, bar lawyers working pro bono from recovering fees, and limit EAJA awards to those with a “direct and personal monetary interest in the civil action,” closing the door to those seeking to vindicate constitutional rights or enforce a right on behalf of the general public, according to a fact sheet by Alliance for Justice, Earthjustice, the Brennan Center for Justice and the National Organization of Veterans’ Advocates.

    “For three decades, veterans, seniors, the disabled, small businesses, and groups from across the ideological spectrum have relied on EAJA to challenge illegal government actions,” explains the fact sheet. 

  • November 18, 2011

    by Jeremy Leaming

    Earlier this week Congress agreed on a drastic cut of funding for the Legal Services Corporation, the nation’s largest provider of civil legal help for low-income people.

    As noted at Daily Kos, the LSC, which helps an ever-growing pool of people, “has fallen under the chopping block of Congress.”

    CLASP, a public advocacy group for the nation’s poor, in a press statement says the House and Senate conferees agreed earlier this week to a nearly 14 percent cut. “The agreement reduced funding for LSC in 2012 to $348 million from $404.19 million in 2011. The last time LSC was funded at $348 million was in 2007,” a statement from CLASP reads.

    The draconian cut comes, of course, as more people are now living in poverty, and much of the nation continues to struggle from aftershocks of the Great Recession. Earlier this year, Daily Kos’ Adam Bonin, an attorney in Philadelphia and former ACS Lawyer Chapter leader, wrote that the proposed cut to LSC funding “would prove to be especially damaging to low-income persons whose health and safety are at risk – the elderly, the victims of domestic violence, the disabled, children, veterans, and others – by denying them access to justice.”

    Following the agreement to cut funding, LSC Board Chair John G. Levi said, “The nation’s poverty population has never been this large, and, as a consequence, requests for civil legal assistance are increasing.” And unless Congress would agree to “restore and enhance” LSC funding, services to low-income persons will dwindle.

    “Many LSC-funded programs,” Levi said, “will have no choice but to lay off staff and reduce the legal assistance they provide low-income Americans.”

  • October 18, 2011
    Guest Post

    By Brooke Lierman, an attorney at the civil rights firm, Brown, Goldstein & Levy LLP in Baltimore, Md. Ms. Lierman is on the Executive Committee of the Maryland Lawyer Chapter of ACS.

    The White House recently added to its growing list of Champions of Change, a group of 16 individuals working, in the words of Attorney General Eric Holder, “to address and to overcome our most pressing legal challenges and to live up to our nation’s highest ideals.” 

    The event, last week, was the latest in a series sponsored by the White House Office of Public Engagement (OPE), which seeks (in the words of the Office’s director Jon Carson) to shine a spotlight on the good work that Americans are doing every day in their communities.

    This event was organized jointly by OPE and the Department of Justice Access to Justice Initiative, an office created by Attorney General Holder (pictured) to ensure that basic legal services are available and accessible to everyone in the country.  

    Attorney General Holder offered some prepared remarks discussing the important work that the honorees perform in their communities.  The 16 individuals, listed below, represented all spheres of the legal community – from professors to directors of legal services programs to general counsel of a major corporation. The White House and Department of Justice honored them and invited them to participate in roundtable discussions about the challenges facing today’s legal system.