New Hampshire Bar Journal
2003 December, 4.
The Power of the Pro Bono Program To Make a Difference
New Hampshire Bar Journal December 2003, Volume 44, Number 4 The Power of the Pro Bono Program To Make a Difference By Virginia A. Martin
"Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the facade of the Supreme Court building. It is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists. . . it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status." U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Lewis Powell, Jr. (1907-1998)
Justice Powell's words resonate as forcefully today as when they were written more than 30 years ago. "Equal justice. . . without regard to economic status:" this simple phrase brings us to the heart of the organized Pro Bono Program's purpose and power. Together with New Hampshire's staff-model legal services programs, the Pro Bono Referral Program coordinates the efforts of its dedicated volunteer attorneys to offer families and individuals living in poverty a voice in our legal system, helping to keep the ideal of equal justice alive. For ideals without action are hollow promises.
For more than a quarter century, the New Hampshire Bar's Pro Bono Program and its network of volunteer attorneys have made a difference in the lives of thousands upon thousands of Granite State people subsisting in stunted economic and social conditions. While an unrealized dream for many, access to our justice system can transform lives and, sometimes, even save them.
Yet, its abiding strength may lie within the work of ensuring simple fairness and dignity in the fundamental matters of daily life. As renowned jurist Learned Hand stated, "It is the daily; it is the small; it is the cumulative injuries of little people that we are here to protect. If we are to keep our democracy, there must be one commandment: Thou shalt not ration justice."
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Access to justice through the Pro Bono Program gave Mr. Smith a fighting chance.
Once known as "Kid Chocolate" in the ring, his boxing days were long gone but his dignity and spirit of survival never wavered. When neighbors sued the elderly gentleman claiming they owned part of a small woodlot next to his home, the former fighter knew he needed help to get a fair shake-to protect his rights and save the bit of timber he cut to supplement his small pension check. When Pro Bono connected Mr. Smith with a law firm committed to "taking one case for justice," the elderly Granite Stater found himself on equal footing with his opponent. After a multi-day trial and the donated services of land surveyors added to volunteer attorney time and advocacy, Mr. Smith prevailed-keeping both his land and his dignity intact.
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Will the Bar's Pro Bono Program still be there in another 25 years for people like Mr. Smith who need access to our justice system to protect their rights?(EN1) Will new generations of Bar leaders, volunteers, funders and others recognize that sustaining New Hampshire's Pro Bono Program is an important investment in our justice system?
While many developments in society -from the growing complexity of legal matters to the overall erosion in voluntary activities-challenge the future of the Pro Bono Program, innovation and adaptability will enable it to survive. The traditions of Pro Bono will be carried on by new leaders, existing partnerships will be strengthened, and new modes of delivery of legal services will be used to address diverse needs. As an icon of American folk music once proclaimed, "The times, they are a changing." Embracing change may be the best way to uphold one of our most hallowed ideals-equal justice for all.
The 25-year history of the Pro Bono Program has demonstrated that in its support of legal services for the poor, New Hampshire's legal community has never shied away from challenge and change, and it has responded creatively to obstacles cast in its path. The future will call on private attorneys to revitalize this deep-rooted tradition of protecting and advancing the rights of the poorest members of our communities to keep alive the promise of "equal justice without regard to economic status."
YOU CAN'T KNOW WHERE YOU ARE GOING UNLESS YOU KNOW WHERE YOU HAVE BEEN
During its 25-year history, the program has exhibited resourcefulness and resilience in navigating the whitewaters of change. One of the most serious threats to its seaworthiness came when Pro Bono lost federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) funding in the mid-1990s. At the same time, New Hampshire Legal Assistance declined to accept federal funding because of restrictions imposed by Congress on its activities. This crisis led to the restructuring of the New Hampshire's legal services delivery system, altering Pro Bono's role to include coordination of client intake with the federally funded Legal Advice and Referral Center created in 1996. Thanks to Bar Association and legal services leadership, the support of its funders and volunteer attorneys, the support system for private attorney involvement in civil legal services, emerged from the restructuring with its key role intact.
As new client needs have emerged, Pro Bono has risen to the occasion again and again to direct volunteer resources to address critical legal service needs. Among those initiatives:
The DOVE Project developed in 1993 to provide expedited legal services to victims of domestic abuse; An SSI Children's Disability Project, partnering with New Hampshire Legal Assistance to represent parents of disabled children facing the loss of their federal benefits; A Military Pro Bono Project launched in 2001 to provide reservists facing call-ups with basic estate planning services; An uncontested divorce booklet developed by volunteers to assist people with "simple" divorces in which children and property are not involved; A Special Education Project conducted in partnership with the Disabilities Rights Center to expand the pool of private attorneys available to handle special education cases for low-income children; A Low-Income Taxpayer Project funded by the Internal Revenue Service to assist low-income working families with federal income tax disputes.
Meanwhile, family law, a mainstay of the Pro Bono caseload, has seen many sweeping changes that have had a major impact on the Program. Many more litigants now proceed with divorces without initially consulting an attorney, a trend that has significantly altered the caseload of the Pro Bono Program, creating one of the deepest challenges faced by the 25-year-old institution. Simple divorces, previously a significant portion of the Program's caseload, are virtually non-existent today given the proclivity of the public to proceed on their own in these matters. In fact, with the exception of a...