PSJD Public Interest News Digest – November 4, 2016

by Christina Jackson, NALP Director of Public Service Initiatives & Fellowships

Happy Friday! Thank you for another great NALP/PSJD Public Service Mini-Conference! I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did.

Here are the week’s headlines:

  • Alberta creates 10 new judge positions;
  • North Mississippi Rural Legal Services celebrates 50 years;
  • Report highlights effect of pro bono legal services in Tennessee;
  • New virtual law advice clinic in Connecticut;
  • University of Toronto Faculty of Law legal aid clinic expands services;
  • New law student program could help ease the crushing bail burden on Ottawa’s jail;
  • Report: Indiana fails to provide consistent indigent defense;
  • New York State creates public interest fellowship in honor of staffer;
  • Newest legal chatbot in UK gives free advice to victims of crime;
  • Cornell Law School launches center to help defeat death penalty worldwide;
  • Legal Aid Ontario lawyers join Society of Energy Professionals union;
  • Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants;
  • Super Music Bonus!

The summaries:

October 20, 2016 – “Alberta’s beleaguered justice system got a helping hand on Thursday, with the province announcing it’s creating 10 new judge positions and the federal government filling seven of the existing vacancies. Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley made the announcement of the 10 new judicial positions in Calgary, saying nine would be at the Court of Queen’s Bench and one at the Court of Appeal. They would be created through amendments to provincial legislation in the fall, she said.” “A recent Supreme Court ruling helped bring matters to a head by imposing hard time limits on how long a person has to wait to have a case heard in court, prompting Alberta’s prosecution service to review an estimated 400 cases for fear that they might be tossed.” “The increase brings the number of justices per capita in Alberta in line with that in other provinces, according to the province. Combined with already existing vacancies, the new positions would mean there were 21 unfilled judicial positions in Alberta, [Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen] Ganley said.” (CBCNews)

October 20, 2016 – “When 86 percent of non-whites lived below the poverty line in Mississippi 50 years ago, a group of University of Mississippi lawyers created the North Mississippi Rural Legal Services to provide legal services to the disadvantaged. This month, the NMRLS celebrated 50 years of legal service. In 2015, NMRLS helped 19,160 residents with adoptions, protective orders, fraud prevention, wills, power of attorney cases, foreclosure prevention, landlord problems, tax assistance and bankruptcy in 39 Mississippi counties. Without the NMRLS, Ben T. Cole, Jr., executive director of NMRLS, said many people would not have their day in court.” “NMRLS, previously known as the Lafayette County Legal Aid, opened its first office in Oxford in 1966.” “Today, NMRLS has 13 staff attorneys in North Mississippi for low-income residents in 39 counties.” (Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal)

October 21, 2016 – “The Tennessee Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission’s released annual report shows Tennessee attorneys are donating more than 500,000 hours of their time annually worth more than $100 million. For the calendar year 2014, nearly half of all attorneys reported doing some kind of pro bono work. The report shows 7,615 attorneys practicing in Tennessee provided 568,170 hours of pro bono, an average of over 74 hours per reporting attorney.  The value of these services is estimated to be over $113 million.” “Further, the Commission recently adopted its 2016 Strategic Plan for improving access to justice in Tennessee.” “The plan includes implementing a strategy to have 10 new court kiosks across the state, developing a statewide communications plan with legal aid and access to justice programs and growing the Tennessee Faith and Justice Alliance to include representation from a variety of faiths. The Commission also makes recommendations to the Supreme Court of projects and programs necessary for enhancing access to justice, especially for self-represented litigants.” (The Chattanoogan)

October 21, 2016 – “The power of the internet is being harnessed to make it easier for low-income Connecticut residents to access legal advice, and to make it easier for pro bono attorneys to volunteer to help people who can’t afford to pay for attorneys. Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut is one of the legal aid law firms in eight states which are partnering with the American Bar Association on a virtual law advice clinic that allows low-income clients to ask questions about civil law and for attorneys to answer their questions online whenever convenient for them. Instead of dropping into a legal aid clinic to talk to a lawyer in person, clients can type their questions and submit them on a computer. Judge Elliot N. Solomon, deputy chief court administrator and co-chairman of the Connecticut judiciary’s Access to Justice Commission, said this new program is unique because it makes it more convenient for people with low to moderate incomes to access legal advice and more convenient for lawyers to be able to provide pro bono service to people who need it.” (Connecticut Law Tribune)

October 21, 2016 – “Downtown Legal Services (DLS) has expanded its practice to now offer employment law services. DLS is a legal aid clinic operating out of the University of Toronto Faculty of Law that offers free legal assistance to low income communities. Legal services are provided by U of T law student volunteers who are supervised by staff lawyers. Last year, DLS received an increase in its budget which arose from an increase in their annual funding from Legal Aid Ontario and an increase in levies received from the U of T students’ tuition. With the extra funds, DLS has now created an employment law division and has also expanded their housing law division. DLS recently announced that ‘help is now available for working students who have been terminated, discriminated against, or otherwise denied their employment rights.’ With their expanded services, the legal clinic now offers employment services in the following areas: employment standards complaints, employment insurance appeals, human rights applications, and small claims court.” (The Varsity)

October 21, 2016 – “An innovative new program in Kingston that helps women get released on bail while easing pressure on the local jail could offer a potential solution for overcrowding in other provincial detention centres like Ottawa. The bail program being offered by Queen’s Legal Aid in partnership with the Elizabeth Fry Society has law students stepping in to help impoverished offenders who are behind bars, usually because they lack a plan that includes the housing or bail supervision they need to be released. The students meet with the inmates, then help craft a release plan that usually assists them in finding a place to stay, counselling, or addiction treatment that the inmate’s lawyer can present to court to help secure their release. The students have been able to help secure the release of 11 women from the Quinte Detention Centre since launching the program in June, said lawyer Jodie-Lee Primeau, the program’s supervisor. Ten of the women were released on consent of the Crown prosecutor without a bail hearing.” “Primeau hopes Queen’s can secure additional funding and access to the detention centre (currently they only receive access to female inmates due to their partnership with the Elizabeth Fry Society) so they can expand their program to assist male offenders.” (Ottawa Sun)

October 24, 2016 – “Indiana is failing to equally provide constitutionally guaranteed effective counsel to indigent people accused of misdemeanor, felony and juvenile offenses, according to a report released Monday. In some counties, poor people facing criminal charges are encouraged to negotiate directly with prosecutors before being appointed counsel. Those are among the findings of a report on the state of Indiana’s provision of public defenders for the indigent released by the Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center. The report was commissioned by the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers as part of its public defense reform program. ‘The state of Indiana fails to consistently ensure that each person facing potential incarceration has the aid of a lawyer with the time, ability, and resources to present an effective defense, as is the state’s constitutional obligation,’ according to the Sixth Amendment Center.” “‘With little to no state oversight, Indiana’s counties do not consistently require indigent defense attorneys to have specific qualifications necessary to handle cases of varying severity or to have the training needed to handle specific types of cases (other than for capital cases),’ the center said in a statement.” (The Indiana Lawyer)

October 24, 2016 – “Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office announced Monday that the state will offer a two-year public service fellowship with the state Department of Labor in honor of Scott Martella, a former Executive Chamber staffer and communications director for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone who was killed in an August car accident. The Scott Martella Public Service Fellowship will be awarded every two years to a student who will then work for the Department of Labor, where Martella worked for more than a year, and will focus on community outreach. The first fellow will be selected from the 2017-19 class of Excelsior Service Fellows. Cuomo’s office said nominated fellows will be required to submit a personal statement outlining their commitment to community outreach and their desire to exemplify what the administration characterized as ‘Scott Martella’s legacy of serving others.’ The fellow will update the Martella family periodically on his or her work.” (Times Union)

October 26, 2016 – A second legal chatbot has launched in the UK.  “LawBot is an artificial intelligence system designed to help people who need to find out more about their rights and how the justice system can aid them. The LawBot team say it’s the world’s most advanced chatbot lawyer. It launched just two weeks ago, and although it’s still in beta, the team behind LawBot have seen it gather 15,000 interactions. It’s the brainchild of Ludwig Bull, who developed the system after he spent the summer in Japan and after working for a think-tank in Cambridge. He recruited the rest of the team on the Cambridge University Law Society Facebook page. The team is now 10 people strong and say LawBot is a labour of love.” (Cambridge Independent)

October 26, 2016 – “A new center at Cornell Law School aims to help eliminate the death penalty across the globe through research and lawyer training. The school on Tuesday announced the launch of the Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide—an initiative made possible by a $3.2 million grant from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the private foundation of university alum Chuck Feeney, founder of the Duty Free Shoppers Group. The center, led by Cornell professor Sandra Babcock, aspires to help end capital punishment internationally by highlighting the flaws in the application of the death penalty worldwide, and by strengthening the training of defense lawyers who handle such cases. Administrators say it’s the first center of its kind in the United States. A handful of schools have domestic-focused death penalty centers or death penalty clinics, including the University of Texas School of Law; Yale Law School; Harvard Law School; and the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. The new center will elevate the international death penalty research Cornell Law faculty started in 2011.” “The centerpiece of the initiative is a summer institute for capital defense lawyers around the world to convene and share notes on effective defense strategies. The center also will conduct research on the death penalty and maintain a free online database on capital punishment law and practices around the world.” “The center will house law school clinics focused on the international death penalty and human rights.” (New York Law Journal)

October 26, 2016 – “Following their four-year campaign to win collective bargaining rights, Legal Aid Ontario staff lawyers voted to join The Society of Energy Professionals. Voting was open throughout this week for the 358 staff lawyers that make up the newest Society bargaining unit. Of those that cast ballots, 76% voted in favour of being represented by The Society. “I am proud to welcome Legal Aid Ontario lawyers to The Society,” said Society president Scott Travers . ‘Legal Aid lawyers showed great strength in their fight for collective bargaining rights, and I am confident that same strength will continue as we begin working on their first collective agreement. I look forward to working in collaboration with the employer toward a collective agreement that is mutually beneficial to both our members and LAO.’ Travers said that the Legal Aid lawyers’ vote shows that professionals are looking to improve their working lives through collective bargaining.” (Yahoo Finance)

Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants:

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Board of Directors traveled from all across the United States to present a Pro Bono Service Award to the Ninth Judicial District Court Pro Bono Committee on October 17th at the University of New Mexico School of Law.  In attendance to accept the award were Judge Donna J. Mowrer and Senior Court Attorney Benjamin Cross.
The Ninth Judicial District Court Pro Bono Committee was chosen to receive this prestigious award due to its efforts in providing important legal services to residents of Curry and Roosevelt counties in eastern New Mexico.  Since 2012, the Pro Bono Committee’s Ask-A-Lawyer event has helped nearly 400 low-income people receive free legal consultations.  Court Attorney Benjamin Cross has hosted more than 125 pro se law clinics, assisting more than 800 people.  Other accomplishments include an annual Adoption Day event and school programs that have reached more than 6,000 students. (

Music Bonus!  A VERY SPECIAL MUSIC PICK from the PSJD Fellow Delisa Morris.

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