President's Column…. And Justice for All
“Justice for all” may be the cornerstone of our democracy, yet as a nation and as a profession we struggle constantly to make it a reality. We casually recite this simple phrase which ends the Pledge of Allegiance, but we should not take it for granted. What do we even mean when we say “justice for all”? Does it mean that we have a right to representation when our liberty is at stake? Or do we mean that everyone should have access to counsel and to our courts to redress what they perceive to be an injustice. My guess is that the average person in the street would say the latter, especially when it impacts them. I think they would tell you that they deserve to have their day in court to address any wrong they have suffered or to defend their rights. Whether they have been arrested for a crime, have been denied the return of a security deposit on an apartment, have been wrongfully terminated, have been denied custody of a child or child support, desire to adopt a step-child, need a guardian for a disabled child or parent, need their veterans benefits, need to clear title to a home, need to file bankruptcy, or need a divorce from an abusive spouse, they need help that only the judicial system can provide. That is justice.
While the list of civil legal needs goes on and on, the help needed is not always available. Unlike in a criminal case, no one is entitled to the appointment of an attorney in a civil matter, but not everyone has the wherewithal to hire an attorney to gain access to the legal system. In fact, today there are more and more people in Texas who fall at or below the Federal poverty guidelines. These folks, along with many people in the so-called middle class, are barely getting by. And while they may have overwhelming legal needs, legal assistance is not available to them because they cannot afford it. So as it turns out, “justice” may not be for “all”—it may only be for those who have the money to pay for it.
So what is the answer, what can we do and why should we care? First, as a profession I believe we have a professional, moral and ethical obligation to help those in need of legal assistance who cannot afford it. If we are going to maintain the rule of law in which we rightfully have such great pride, we need to insure that access to the legal system is available to everyone, not just a fortunate few. We can do this by providing pro bono legal services and by supporting those organizations that do. There are many organizations in Dallas that help the poor with a variety of needs, and I am extremely proud to report that the Dallas Bar Association, in conjunction with Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas, is working hard to insure that legal aid is available to those less fortunate in our community.
Many, although not all, of you are familiar with the Dallas Volunteer Attorney Program (DVAP), which is a partnership between the Dallas Bar Association and Legal Aid of NorthWest Texas. Through the collaborative effort of the Bar and Legal Aid, more than 2,600 cases where handled by volunteer lawyers last year for low income individuals and families who were involved in a wide range of varying civil legal matters. With a staff made up of employees from both the DBA and Legal Aid, DVAP recruits, trains, coordinates, mentors and assists thousands of volunteer lawyers annually in screening and handling these cases. DVAP organizes and staffs legal clinics throughout the city on a weekly basis and works closely with the volunteer lawyers and the courts to insure that DVAP clients receive high quality, civil legal aid year in and year out.
In spite of the efforts of DVAP, many low income people in our community go without the civil legal aid that they need. According to Legal Services Corporation, a national organization, for every person who receives civil legal aid in this country, one is turned away. Happily the statistics for DVAP are more encouraging. While many perspective clients are turned away because they do not meet the guidelines (financial, subject matter, conflicts, etc.), less than 20 percent of those who applied and qualified for legal aid last year were turned away by DVAP due to insufficient resources. But there is no doubt that there are thousands more who qualify for and need legal aid that DVAP did not reach. The poverty population in Dallas County has more than doubled since the 2000 census, and neither DVAP nor Legal Aid can keep up with the demand. When you consider that there are over a million people in Dallas County who could qualify for legal aid and just under 5,000 applied to DVAP for assistance last year, you know that there are a lot of unmet legal needs among the poor in Dallas. And while the need is ever growing, the resources available to fund civil legal aid are shrinking.
To help fund DVAP, in 1997 the DBA and Legal Aid initiated a joint fundraising campaign known as the Equal Access to Justice Campaign. What an appropriate name! As a result of the campaign, DVAP has been able to continuously increase its services to the poor in Dallas County. The campaign has grown each year and, since 1997, has raised in excess of $8.5 million to fund DVAP. The funds raised in the campaign help pay for the fifteen full time staff members who work for DVAP, as well as the overhead costs associated with operating the program. Even though the campaign raises a larger amount of money each year, it is not enough to cover the total cost of the program. Both the Bar and Legal Aid contribute additional funds to meet the expenses of DVAP.
Through the years many notable Dallas attorneys have chaired the campaign, including many presidents of the Dallas Bar (including myself in 2005). This year the campaign is being co-chaired by Shonn Brown, of Gruber Hurst Johansen Hail Shank LLP, and Aaron Tobin, of Anderson Tobin. It is quite a task to chair this campaign and requires great dedication and many, many long hours. Shonn and Aaron are more than up to the task and, as you can see from the report on the campaign contained in this issue of Headnotes, they are already hard at work. The campaign becomes more and more sophisticated each year and now features multiple phone banks and various divisions chaired by numerous Bar leaders. The campaign is also ably assisted by the staff of both the DBA and Legal Aid. For many years the campaign has included a car raffle and this year is no exception. The campaign and the raffle are both kicking off this month and will continue through the 2014 inaugural, which will take place on January 11, 2014.
Surprisingly, even though the campaign and raffle raised over $800,000 last year, a very small percentage of Dallas lawyers (approximately 4 percent of our membership) donated to the campaign. Through the generosity of many firms and some large individual contributions, the campaign has always been a success and I am certain it will meet its goal this year of $750,000. Having said that, there is still a long way to go to meet the civil legal needs of the poor in Dallas County. It would be a dream come true if every lawyer would make a contribution, no matter how large or how small, to the campaign to demonstrate our support and commitment to “justice for all” in our community. Just as we are proud of providing outstanding pro bono service to the poor in Dallas, it would be a tremendous source of pride if we could boast that all of our lawyers supported the Equal Access to Justice Campaign. Your contribution can help make that a reality.