Special Committee on Access to Legal Services

Margaret A. Nelson, 2009-2010 Chair
The Special Committee on Access to Legal Services set four objectives for implementation during 2009-10.  They conformed to the five-year plan it developed during spring of ?09.  While the committee engaged in myriad activities over the year, for the sake of brevity, my summary reflects policy directions and other priorities undertaken in response to pressures experienced by our constituents as a result of the national economic downturn.  

1) Promote development of a statewide system of effective and high quality legal services in collaboration with legal aid and community organizations.
  • Committee members used relationship-building as a tool to facilitate communication on funding for civil legal services and indigent defense. The committee supported inclusion of a letter from then-bar president Jon Huddleston in the FY 2011 bar dues statement inviting attorney donations to Legal Services Corporation of Virginia. It also supported a proposal for inclusion of space on the 2011-12 bar dues statement for attorneys to voluntarily contribute to LSCV.       
  • The committee recommended that the VSB Indigent Defense Task Force be reconvened to explore discovery issues in criminal cases. The IDTF was created by Council to operate under the auspices of the committee in 2004.  Many earlier recommendations proposed by the IDTF have been implemented. However a remaining consideration is reciprocal open file-discovery (and whether greater initial sharing of pertinent information might enhance fiscals for the justice system as a whole.)  The Task Force’s current three working groups include a vigorous Commonwealth’s Attorney Subcommittee. The goodwill engendered between the prosecutor and defense communities engaged in subcommittee efforts has favorably impacted outside endeavors. For example, an upcoming issue of the Virginia Lawyer is slated to feature a jointly-authored article by representatives of these two communities. They are cooperating with VDCJS on a grant application under the federal John R. Justice Act for partial forgiveness of law school loans incurred by Virginia defenders and prosecutors.  
  • Cognizant of the Pro Bono Initiative co-sponsored by the Chief Justice and Justices of the Supreme Court of Virginia and the Virginia Bar Association, the committee chair introduced several members of that effort to the concept of formal Access to Justice Commissions. Implemented nationwide, in close to a majority of states, the commissions seek to identify gaps in services and to address unsolved systemic problems of justice system access. Commission governing boards that are answerable to the state’s highest court and that include representatives from the spectrum of stakeholder/providers are two features typically found at the national level.  Invitations were secured for opinion leaders from the Court/VBA Pro Bono Initiative to attend the day-long national meeting of Access to Justice Commission Chairs. In at least one instance, budget concerns negated hopes for an organized Virginia presence.   
       The committee has consistently supported efforts to exponentially increase numbers of volunteers capable of assisting low-income individuals with their legal needs. Past chairs Renae Patrick (2008) and Rob Stoney (2006) and incoming committee chair Andrea Bridgeman (2010) were appointed to sit on the joint VSB/VBA Task Force recommending reforms to the pro bono provisions governing corporate counsel Part I certificate holders. That Task Force was a direct outcome of the spring Pro Bono Summit, which was, in turn a culmination of the regional “listening” efforts co-sponsored in 2010 by the Court and the VBA. I was privileged to attend the regional meeting in Richmond. Two members of the Access Committee made formal presentations to the Supreme Court at the spring Pro Bono Summit. They were invited by planners to speak to the Court in recognition of their expertise as full-time executive directors of nonprofit civil legal assistance programs serving low-income clients. We are grateful to have many such noteworthy individuals from across the Commonwealth serve regularly on the committee.    
  • Access to Justice Book & Arts Fair – Lawyers EXPO, VSB Annual Meeting. The committee was pleased to promote the 3rd Access to Justice Book and Arts Fair, held annually since 2008 in the Lawyers’ Expo at the VSB Annual Meeting. This well-received offering, spanning 3 days, is a low-cost vehicle for the committee to broadcast its message to a wider audience without incurring the expenses inherent in a full-blown spring Pro Bono & Access to Justice Conference. Commercial booksellers, a legal aid radio show, a guest author who writes about indigent defense and photographic artwork were featured in 2010.
2) Encourage submission of timely articles on access to justice issues consistent with the highest and best use of funding streams. As published in the Virginia Lawyer magazine, several provocative articles explored clinical training of third-year practice certificate-holders and other law students and volunteers. This effort relates to the committee’s goal of seamlessly increasing the number of well-trained and highly-motivated legal services staff capable of transitioning either into legal services employment or into the direct delivery of pro bono services, or who can competently and comfortably provide pro se legal information. Guest articles were shared, pre-publication, with the board of the VSB Section on the Education of Lawyers. Committee members appreciate that SEL independently sponsored a Town Hall-style exploratory discussion on related topics during the 72nd VSB Annual Meeting in Virginia Beach.

3) Foster delivery of effective and high quality legal services through training and collaboration. The committee co-sponsored a well-received interdisciplinary CLE on federal healthcare reform with the VSB Health Law Section at the Annual Meeting. Presenters secured by the committee included Jill A. Hanken, Health Law Staff Attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center and John D. Ward, MD, MSHA, Chief, Pediatric Neurosurgery, and Chief Medical Officer VCU Medical Center/MCV Physicians. That undertaking conformed with the committee’s pledge to enhance its outreach to the broader professional community. My participation in an earlier statewide healthcare-related meeting at Lewis Ginter in the fall was also consistent with our expansion efforts. That gathering, the Executive Leadership Meeting of the Commonwealth Consortium for Criminal Justice and Mental Health Transformation was convened in October under the auspices of the prior gubernatorial administration. Appointed by bar executive leadership, on behalf of the committee and the bar, I felt honored to serve as a representative from the defender community. Insights gained from that experience translated to other committee engagements in the spring, including organizational work related to the Circuit Award presentation to appointed counsel on behalf of the Supreme Court and the bar in the 22nd judicial circuit and a two-day dialogue, as an invitee, on regional mental health issues, including crisis intervention, in the 24th circuit.  

4) Foster public recognition of individuals/organizations that support the committee’s mission. Three 2009 Circuit Awards were bestowed at ceremonies in local communities. Recipients included pro bono attorney Robert J. Stoney (Fairfax) and two court-appointed counsel, David A. Furrow and R. Clinton Clary Jr. from, respectively, the twenty-second and sixth judicial circuits. Recipients of 2010 statewide justice awards were feted at two related events during the VSB Annual Meeting, an informal reception and a formal Luncheon Award Ceremony.  Honorees included attorneys Kathryn L. Pryor and William B. Reichhardt, respective recipients of the Virginia State Bar Legal Aid Award and the Lewis F. Powell Jr. Pro Bono Award, and William & Mary law graduate, Robert J. Poggenklass, recipient of the Oliver W. Hill Law Student Pro Bono Award. The committee was delighted to welcome Supreme Court Justice William C. Mims to the Awards Luncheon. He appeared at the personal invitation of the chair. Also present, in uniform at the Luncheon, were eight attorney members of the Naval Legal Assistance Office headquartered in Norfolk. Their number included two ELAP attorneys newly admitted by the Supreme Court of Virginia under limited practice rule 1A:6.   

Gratitude is extended to local chief judges and voluntary bar leaders who consulted on appointment of candidates to the board of directors of Lynchburg-based Virginia Legal Aid Society. I also appreciate the time, insight, and energy contributed by each committee member whose individual and collective generosity helped us meet our goals for 2009-10.  Special thanks are extended to Co-Vice Chairs Raymond Hartz and Crystal Twitty, and to members Elizabeth Atkinson, Arlene Beckerman, Andrea Bridgeman, H. Patrick Cline Jr., James Ferguson, Janet James, Eva Juncker, Steven Myers, Susan Proctor, Julie Strandlie, Richard Sullivan, Joanna Suyes, and Mark Braley (ex officio).

Updated: Jun 23, 2011