PSJD Public Interest News Digest – December 9, 2016

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

Happy Friday!

Here are the week’s headlines:

  • Audit: Montana public defender office owed millions, not collecting;
  • Ontario to hire more judges and prosecutors to tackle trial delays;
  • Chicago mayor creates $1 million legal fund to assist immigrants;
  • App helps transgender Canadians access legal info;
  • Acadiana Legal Services Corporation receives $1.5 million grant historically awarded to Legal Services;
  • Maine Justice Foundation launches new LGBT Justice Fund;
  • Texas Commission to Expand Civil Legal Services issues report;
  • Public Counsel launches the Audrey Irmas Project for Women and Girls’ Rights with grant from the Audrey Irmas Foundation for Social Justice;
  • ParDONE wins Ontario Access to Justice Challenge;
  • Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants;
  • Super Music Bonus!

The summaries:

December 1, 2016 – “A financial audit of the Office of the State Public Defender found the agency doesn’t know how much money it is owed by criminal defendants and that the office is not trying to collect the money while facing a $3.5 million budget shortfall. The November audit said the defender’s office estimates it was owed $3.95 million in court-ordered fees as of June 30, but has written off $2.8 million as uncollectible. ‘These unpaid assessments represent money due to the office that could be used to fund a portion of the office’s operations instead of the (state) General Fund,’ auditors found. State agencies should have policies in place to ensure timely billing and should make all reasonable efforts to collect money owed to them, the audit said. Office managers told auditors there are several obstacles to collecting the fees that state law allows if judges determine defendants have the ability to pay. OPD says it’s been unsuccessful in getting complete information from courts about the amount of fees owed and paid by individual defendants. It also notes there is no centralized database allowing the state to track the amounts due by each defendant and the order in which defendants are to pay for fines, restitution and public defender fees. Managers also question whether they have the legal authority to collect the money, and believe that work should fall on the court system. The audit notes the legislature’s Task Force on State Public Defender Operations is supporting legislation to transfer the responsibility for collecting public defender fees to the Department of Revenue. ‘Due to this, we will make no further recommendations at this time,’ the audit said.” (Daily Inter Lake)

December 1, 2016 – “Ontario has announced the biggest expansion of its criminal-justice system in more than two decades, two weeks after a judge scrapped a first-degree-murder charge because the accused had spent four years in jail waiting for his trial to be completed. The expansion is an attempt to meet new Supreme Court deadlines for timely trials. Ontario Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi said on Thursday the province’s criminal courts are “bottle-necked” and there is no “sugar-coating” the challenge facing them. The government will add 13 judges, 32 prosecutors, 16 duty counsel serving accused people and 26 court staff. It also announced several measures aimed at improving its bail system and ensuring low-risk people do not languish behind bars until their trial is completed. The price for the expansion and bail changes is $25-million a year.” (The Globe and Mail)

December 2, 2016 – “The Taxpayer Advocate Service of the IRS recently approved a three-year grant for the Notre Dame Tax Clinic. The IRS awards matching grants through its Low Income Tax Clinic Program to qualifying organizations to develop, expand, or maintain low-income taxpayer clinics. The mission of the LITC program is to represent low-income taxpayers who have controversies with the IRS; educate clients about their rights and responsibilities as taxpayers; and identify and advocate for issues that systemically impact low-income taxpayers. The Notre Dame Tax Clinic opened in the 2016-2017 school year and provides free tax-related legal services to qualified, low-income clients. Second- and third-year law students represent low-income and English-as-a-Second-Language clients in tax disputes with the IRS. It is the Law School’s fifth community-oriented law clinic.” (University of Notre Dame News)

December 2, 2016 – “Mayor Rahm Emanuel on Friday took $1 million earmarked for a widely-ignored property tax rebate and used it to create a “Legal Protection Fund” for immigrants living in “anxiety and uncertainty” and threatened with deportation after the election of Donald Trump. The mayor upped the ante in his immigration war of words with Trump by forging a partnership with the National Immigration Justice Center and challenging the private and philanthropic communities to join the effort and provide legal resources to immigrant families living in fear. The $1 million will allow the NIJC, which is based in Chicago, and its law firms to consult and represent more than 3,000 additional people. According to the center, roughly 150,000 Chicago-area residents are not legally permanent U.S. residents. Thousands more are worried about their immigration status.” (Chicago Sun Times)

December 2, 2016 – “Navigating Canada’s legal system is tricky for most people, but it can be even more challenging if you’re a member of the transgender community. People who are transgender face higher rates of unemployment, discrimination, and violence. And since the median annual income of a transgender Ontarian is only $15,000, seeking legal counsel is often out of reach. That’s where JusticeTrans comes in. Launched in 2015 by Benjamin Vandorpe, a graduate from Osgoode Hall Law School and a trans-identified man, JusticeTrans is an app that provides access to up-to-date legal information about transgender rights. It’s free to download, and has province-based data about issues like housing, arrests, and name changes.” “JusticeTrans has grown quickly in its first year. Vandorpe’s brought on a board of directors, and is working to partner with law firms across the country. In July, he was named one of six finalists competing for $50,000 in seed funding through the Ontario Access to Justice Challenge, a program that recognizes early-stage companies enhancing access to justice and challenging the status quo of legal services.” (THIS)

December 6, 2016 – “A $1.5-million federal grant that had gone to Legal Services of North Louisiana for several years has been awarded, instead, to the Acadiana Legal Services Corporation. LSNL Board Chairman Ben Politz did not respond to a request for comment on whether the loss of federal funding could mean cutbacks in staffing and services at LSNL. But Greg Landry, executive director for ALSC, said he plans to more than double the firm’s staffing to help serve the northern parishes and to cultivate existing expertise in the area to do so.” “LSNL will receive some transitional funding from the grant to ensure continuity of services for current clients.” (The Times)

December 7, 2016 – “The Maine Justice Foundation is launching a new LGBT Justice Fund. Executive Director Diana Scully says six founders have already stepped forward to contribute to the fund, which will provide support for vulnerable LGBT people who need civil legal aid. ‘Or, in some instances, there may be groups who would like to do some systemic work to tackle issues that face LGBT people,’ Scully says.” A launch event is planned for next week. (Maine Public)

December 7, 2016 – “To expand civil legal services for Texans of modest means: Bolster resources at law libraries, collect more information about pro se litigants, and promote technologies that will help make it easier for more people to identify affordable legal counsel. Those are some of the conclusions reached in a report issued Dec. 6 by a Texas Supreme Court-appointed 19-member commission. The court established the commission slightly more than one year ago and assigned it the task of gathering information about how to make available more civil legal services for low- and middle-income Texans.” Click the link for the Commission’s specific recommendations. (Texas Lawyer)

December 7, 2016 – “Public Counsel is excited to announce the establishment of the Audrey Irmas Project for Women and Girls’ Rights. This project is the result of a four-year, $1 million grant from the Audrey Irmas Foundation for Social Justice. During its 46-year existence, Public Counsel has provided a wide range of legal services for low-income women and girls. Audrey Irmas’ generous contribution will allow us to make our delivery of direct legal services to women and girls more holistic and effective, and permit us to greatly expand our systems change efforts on their behalf.” (Public Counsel)

December 8, 2016 – “In July, Ryerson’s Legal Innovation Zone, in partnership with the Ministry of the Attorney General announced that six legaltech startups would work out of the LIZ’s workspaces for four months before competing for $50,000 in prizes through the Ontario Access to Justice Challenge. Yesterday, ParDONE was announced as the winner of the Challenge’s $25,000 top prize. ParDONE’s platform is meant to help people with criminal records reduce the cost and time of the record suspension application. ParDONE automates the record suspension process, while keeping clients up-to-date on the process.” “Legally Inc., at second place, took $15,000 in seed money, while Law Scout took home $10,000. Included in the three prizes is the opportunity to work out of the Legal Innovation Zone for an additional four months.” (betakit)

Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants:

Troutman Sanders announced today the recipients of its annual Pro Bono Awards. Partners Andrew Perel, William Hurd, Stephen Piepgrass and associates Chris Davis and Jasmine Hites were recognized for their outstanding pro bono performance. Read about their outstanding work here – Troutman Sanders News & Knowledge.

Music Bonus! Music pick from the PSJD Fellow Delisa Morris.

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