October 23, 2013 Articles

Justice for the Poor: More Than Duty, It's Opportunity!

Legal aid is an area where all faiths and those of no faith can come together to strengthen communities.

By Bruce D. Strom

Harvard University commissioned Reginald Heber Smith in 1919 to compile a study on the legal needs of the poor, entitled Justice and the Poor. The inherent problem he identified remains today’s challenge: “The lawyer is indispensable to the conduct of the proceedings before the courts, and yet the fees which he must charge for his services are more than millions of persons can pay.” Reginald Heber Smith, Justice and the Poor 31 (New York, Merrymount Press 1919).

Smith recognized the duty owed by attorneys to make justice accessible, citing the professional ethics of 1884: “It is indeed the noblest faculty of the profession to counsel the ignorant, defend the weak and oppressed, and to stand forth on all occasions as the bulwark of private rights against the assaults of power.” J. George Sharwood, An Essay on Professional Ethics 53 (F. B. Rotham, 5th ed. 1993) (1854).

Smith, however, discovered something far nobler than duty. As he sat in legal-aid offices, Smith was amazed at the compassion and service offered by staff and volunteer attorneys. He witnessed the change that came over people from learning their rights and having an advocate support them. He believed the human story needed to be told to demonstrate the opportunity legal aid provided in strengthening individuals and whole communities through significant economic and social impact. Almost 100 years later, that story has not been fully told—until now.

My book Gospel Justice: Joining Together to Provide Help and Hope for Those Oppressed by Legal Injustice tells the stories of unsung heroes who volunteer and the impact they make in the lives of those of limited means every day. The following story is an example.

Wilma, a deaf-mute, suffered in silence. The state took her son, Danny, away. She could not speak for herself, so the state believed her incompetent. For years she sat alone in an institution, clinging to one hope. She clung to a piece of paper in her pocket with the name Danny on it. She clung to the hope of being reunited.

Danny was placed in foster care, adopted, and given the name Ken. Ken did not blame his mom for abandoning him but felt incomplete without her. When he married, she was not there. When his three children were born, she was absent. He continued to hope for restoration.

Forty years after the forced separation, Ken’s wife found information on the Internet that led to locating his mother. They traveled from Illinois to Alabama and found Wilmaneglected and alone. When they met, Wilma reached into her pocket and pulled out the worn paper with Danny’s name. As they embraced, Ken wanted to free his mother and break the chains that kept her from him, but he had no legal basis. Wilma had no assets. Ken and his wife were in the Salvation Army and had no means to hire an attorney to establish guardianship and secure all the legal work to release his mother so they could be restored as a family.

A team of volunteer attorneys—including a mentor who coached a pro bono volunteer through guardianship proceedings, a guardian ad litem, and several non-attorney volunteers—worked together to reunite Ken and his mother.

Ken now walks his neighborhood holding hands with his mother. She has learned sign language and can communicate with her family. “I about gave up on the possibility of ever finding my mother or that I would ever be reunited with her,” Ken says. “To be able to watch her make me a meal, to be able to hug her, to be able to watch her with my kids, her grandkids, and to see her interact with us—it’s the way a family should be on a daily basis. . . . It has literally changed my life and allowed her a life of being a mother.” Bruce D. Strom, Gospel Justice 23–24 (Chicago, Moody Publishing 2013).

We are all part of the human story and we need to tell the story of opportunity that exists in legal aid to make a difference. For too long we have focused on numbers: 60 million Americans are eligible for legal assistance; only 1 in 5 legal-aid needs are met by an agency or a pro bono attorney; the number of poor living in suburban communities is now greater than the number of poor living in urban areas. Numbers raise awareness, but outcomes encourage involvement and support. Legal aid has significant social and economic impact in the lives of individuals and communities. Carmen DeNavas-Walt, Bernadette D. Proctor & Jessica C. Smith, U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Reports P60-245, Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2012, at19 (U.S. Gov’t Printing Office 2013); Legal Servs. Corp., Documenting the Justice Gap in America 4 (2d ed. 2007); Elizabeth Kneebone & Alan Berube, Confronting Suburban Poverty in America (Brookings Inst. Press 2013).

The American Bar Association (ABA) has led efforts to greatly expand opportunities to engage in providing greater access to justice. Under the leadership of the ABA, most states have adopted limited engagement opportunities for lawyers that remove some of the burden of protracted time commitments while allowing for meaningful involvement and assistance. More community and faith-based initiatives are emerging to creatively address the needs of those of limited means through sliding-scale fees, clinics, document-preparation assistance, client coaching, technology, and community partnerships.

As we improve our outcome measurements to demonstrate the stability provided by families, the economic impact of legal aid on communities, and the social impact of restored lives, we encourage others to be a part of this change.

Yes, we have a duty to provide equal access to justice. However, the real privilege of legal aid is the potential to make a significant difference in the lives of those of limited means and the communities in which we live, work, and attend places of worship. Legal aid is not just a safety net to catch those who have fallen on hard times; itis a springboard to greater stability and self-sufficiency.

Hopefully, the book Gospel Justice is one of many that begin to tell the stories of our neighbors of limited means and the opportunity we have to be Good Samaritans as we stop and serve those needs. While Gospel Justice comes from a faith perspective, legal aid is an area where all faiths and those of no faith can come together to strengthen communities and help make our pledge of justice for all possible.

Keywords: litigation, access to justice, Gospel Justice, legal aid

Bruce D. Strom is the author of Gospel Justice: Joining Together to Provide Help and Hope for Those Oppressed by Legal Injustice. He is the founder of Administer Justice, a faith-based legal aid in the Chicago suburbs and is president and CEO of Gospel Justice Initiative, a national initiative encouraging people of faith to get more involved in justice for the poor and vulnerable.

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