During his 25 years on the bench as an associate justice of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court, the Honorable Edward M. Ginsburg frequently encountered a familiar sight: people of limited means appearing in court for divorces, child support, domestic violence protection, guardianships, and other vital matters without a lawyer. Judge Ginsburg saw these people struggle to identify their legal issues, introduce evidence, and follow procedural rules.
Ginsburg witnessed is a common sight in courtrooms across the country. The need for legal services among the poor is overwhelming. National and statewide research conducted regularly over the past 25 years reflects that as much as 80 percent of the legal needs of low-income citizens go unmet.
Justice Ginsburg was aware that as funding sources decrease and legal aid programs are forced to cut staff, the importance of pro bono legal representation has never been greater. As his retirement approached, Judge Ginsburg decided to do something about it. On October 14, 2002, the day after his 70th birthday, he founded a new organization, Senior Partners for Justice. Partnering with the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, this initiative connected pro bono attorneys and retired judges with poor people in need of legal representation.
One group that Judge Ginsburg found to be in particular need of pro bono representation was seniors. In January 2008 the Boston Globe ran a story claiming that many seniors were being abused through inappropriate placement under restrictive guardianships. Although commonly thought to involve only physical or psychological violence, elder abuse also involves the unlawful taking of a senior’s money, property, and personhood.
The newspaper found that after the courts declared a senior mentally ill and appointed a guardian, that person lost all autonomy with virtually no recourse to challenge the decision or regain control. Most problematic, guardianships were virtually unregulated. The investigation found that guardians were ignoring requirements that they file inventory of assets of the people they were responsible for and neglecting to file annual financial accounting of how they managed their dependents’ finances. For example, in Suffolk Probate Court, where the newspaper examined five years of guardianship filings, there were no financial reports in 85 percent of the cases.
In response to the Globe’s article, Judge Ginsburg immediately reached out to the Probate and Family Court Chief Justice to discuss how Senior Partners might help. This conversation resulted in a weekly pro bono guardianship clinic in the Probate and Family Court in Boston. Under a new law aimed at creating protections for incapacitated seniors, the paperwork required for guardianship increased dramatically and presented a formidable obstacle to unrepresented litigants. In the clinic, volunteer attorneys and law students assisted low-income family caregivers and others in filing petitions for guardianships of incapacitated adults. The clinic subsequently expanded to two additional counties.
Senior Partners also created a new project in which volunteer attorneys each month reviewed the care plans and annual reports filed by guardians of incapacitated adults to facilitate the court’s oversight of guardianships. Using a checklist designed by the court, volunteers flagged problems for the court to follow up on, such as administration of anti-psychotic medication without authorization.
In the years since Senior Partner was founded, the organization has handled more than 3,400 pro bono cases for clients of limited means, the majority of which have been in family law and guardianship cases.
Senior Partners is just one example of a local program providing pro bono assistance to the elderly. The ABA’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono & Public Service (americanbar.org/groups/probono_public_service.html), in partnership with Pro Bono Net, maintains a National Pro Bono Opportunities Guide (probono.net/aba_oppsguide) that directs volunteers to service projects in their state. A few examples of available opportunities include:
- AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly in Washington, D.C., which has a variety of litigation and non-litigation projects for pro bono attorneys, including the preparation of wills and/or power of attorneys;
- Center for Disability and Elder Law in Chicago, which utilizes pro bono volunteers to provide direct services for seniors and staff workshops and clinics; and
- Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Center for Elder Abuse Prevention, Intervention and Research in New York, which connects volunteer attorneys with staff counsel to provide pro bono research and writing on issues impacting the older adult population and victims of elder abuse.
All these organizations provide training and support necessary for volunteer attorneys to provide quality representation and assist thousands of vulnerable and underrepresented clients.
The need for quality pro bono legal representation of the elderly—and the opportunities to get involved—have never been greater. In the words of Justice Ginsburg, who received the ABA Pro Bono Publico Award for his work with Senior Partners for Justice: “the personal enjoyment derived from [my] practice of law has been augmented by the satisfaction of being able to help individuals in difficult periods of their lives.” Through the collaboration of programs addressing the needs of the underserved and the commitment of dedicated volunteers, we can work together to uphold our nation’s promise of justice for all.