PSJD Public Interest News Digest – February 24, 2017

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

Happy Friday! I was thrilled to be at Duke University School of Law this week to present the 2016 Pro Bono Publico Award to Gabrielle Lucero. Read more about her exemplary contribution to pro bono in her community on PSJD and stay tuned to the PSJD Blog for her guest post. Thank you to Stella Boswell and her team at Duke for an amazing celebration of pro bono.

Here are the week’s headlines:

  • Austin City Council approves emergency funds for immigrant legal services;
  • DC District Court certifies class in Pacer fee lawsuit;
  • Hunton & Williams LLP receives Coast Guard Meritorious Public Service Medal for pro bono work;
  • Judges and lawyers push for better access to British Columbia justice system;
  • Immigrant Justice Corps announces 2017 Justice Fellows;
  • ABA study finds Louisiana’s public defender system understaffed by about 1,400 lawyers;
  • New Mexico judge rules against underfunding public defenders;
  • Law Foundation of Ontario issues grants to examine technology and access to justice;
  • Grant from Massachusetts Attorney General will help veterans;
  • Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants; and
  • Super Music Bonus!

The summaries:

February 16, 2017 – “Austin City Council approved $200,000 in emergency funding for immigration legal services Thursday, while immigrants and advocates took to the steps of City Hall outside to protest ICE raids and national anti-immigrant policies. The grant expands a preexisting contract the city holds with Catholic Charities of Central Texas, which provides pro bono legal service to help immigrants understand their rights and legal statuses. Justin Estep, the director of legal services for Catholic Charities, says the money is much needed.” (KUT)

February 16, 2017 – “The United States District Court for the District of Columbia certified a class of all individuals and entities who paid fees to obtain court records though the Public Access to Court Electronic Records (PACER) system. The proposed class representatives, three nonprofit legal advocacy organizations, overcame the government’s primary challenge to class certification, which was that they were not adequate class representatives. The National Veterans Legal Services Program, the National Consumer Law Center and the Alliance for Justice, all nonprofit entities that paid fees to obtain court records from PACER, filed suit to recover the allegedly excessive fees charged by the government for PACER access. Plaintiffs claim that the PACER fee schedule violated the E-Government Act of 2002, 28 U.S.C. § 1913) and seek reimbursement of the excess fee pursuant to the Little Tucker Act, 28 U.S.C. § 1346, on behalf of all individuals and entities, excluding class counsel and federal governmental agencies, who paid PACER fees from April 2010 through April 2016. Plaintiffs assert that the PACER fees result in a profit that violates the E-Government Act, inhibits “public understanding of the courts” and thwarts “equal access to justice.” For example, although the 2012 cost to the judiciary for providing technology and access to PACER was approximately $41 million, the judiciary collected more than $145 million in PACER fees that year. Plaintiffs seek a refund of the excess fee for themselves and the class members.” (JD Supra Business Advisor)

February 16, 2017 – “Hunton & Williams LLP today received the U.S. Coast Guard Meritorious Public Service Medal for the firm’s pro bono legal work on behalf of Coast Guard members.” “‘While we are honored to receive this prestigious award, it truly has been our privilege to serve the Coast Guard and its families, and we look forward to continuing and expanding our partnership,’ said Managing Partner Wally Martinez, a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, who helped start the pro bono legal assistance program and is among the program’s most active participants. Martinez also received a Meritorious Public Service award for his personal contributions. Begun in 2012, the Coast Guard partnership has involved about 30 of the firm’s lawyers who have contributed nearly 1,800 volunteer hours in five states. The firm assists Coast Guard members and their families with legal issues involving real estate, estate planning, bankruptcy, immigration and other matters. Lawyers from the firm’s New York, Miami, Norfolk, Richmond, Atlanta and Washington offices have all been involved in the partnership. The Meritorious Public Service Medal is given to recognize substantial contribution to the Coast Guard that produced tangible results and specific individual accomplishments that provide unique benefits to the public.” (Business Wire)

February 16, 2017 – “As the old saying goes, ‘justice delayed is justice denied.’ Those words are being invoked by many of BC’s judges and lawyers who are demanding the provincial government fix a troubled legal system. In a report entitled ‘An Agenda for Justice,’ the Canadian Bar Association’s BC branch is making wide-ranging recommendations it would like to see made provincial election issues ahead of the May vote. The association is concerned about access to the justice system, pointing to struggles with long case delays and an overstretched legal aid system. ‘Legal aid funding is so limited that in Provincial Court, approximately 40 percent of British Columbians are unrepresented by a lawyer in family court cases and 20 percent are unrepresented in criminal cases,’ states the report. ‘The impact is that, through no fault of their own, people who are unrepresented take up more court time and more taxpayer-funded resources to go through the system.’ Among other recommendations, the Bar Association suggests increasing funding for legal aid lawyers from $84 an hour to $135.” The report concludes, ‘the Government of British Columbia and Members of the Legislative Assembly have the opportunity — every day — to improve the lives of British Columbians by taking steps to ensure they have access to justice that is delivered in a timely manner, by courts supported by up-to-date legislation and technology, and with a studied interest in their needs and challenges.'” (News 1130)

February 16, 2017 – “Immigrant Justice Corps (IJC), the country’s first fellowship program wholly dedicated to meeting immigrants’ need for high-quality legal assistance, announced today its 2017 fellowship class, a select group of talented and promising new lawyers who will represent immigrants fighting deportation and seeking lawful status and citizenship.  Twenty-five graduates from top law schools from around the country were chosen for the prestigious fellowship at IJC, which was conceived of by Robert A. Katzmann, Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and incubated by Robin Hood in 2013.” Click the link for the complete list.  Congratulations Fellows! (Immigrant Justice Corps)

February 17, 2017 – “The state public defender system in Louisiana is understaffed by 1,406 lawyers, according to an ABA study of their workloads.The study (PDF) found that 1,769 full-time public defenders are needed to provide reasonably effective assistance of counsel in Louisiana, but the state only employs 363 full-time equivalent PDs. An ABA press release summarizes the findings. Currently, the state has the capacity to handle 21 percent of the workload to provide indigent defense that complies with prevailing professional norms, the study concludes. The study was conducted by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants and the consulting firm Postlethwaite & Netterville.” (ABA Journal)

February 17, 2017 – “A state district court judge in southeastern New Mexico has rejected arguments by public defense attorneys that they are too overloaded with work to provide adequate representation to poor defendants facing jail time. District Judge William Shoobridge of Lea County said in an order released Friday that attorneys with the Law Offices of the Public Defender have been providing reasonably competent representation to indigent defendants in the area despite financial pressures. The order is a setback for the Office of the Public Defender as it seeks to suspend work on some indigent cases while seeking more state funding. Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur says his office is weighing an appeal to the state Supreme Court and that he would continue to raise issues of high caseloads and lack of resources.” (Artesia Daily Press)

February 21, 2017 – “The Law Foundation of Ontario has issued grants to the Winkler Institute at Osgoode Hall Law School and Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone so they can examine how technology and innovation can improve access to justice for young people. ‘Together, these projects will give the Foundation insight into how technology can be harnessed to help young people facing legal problems,’ said Linda Rothstein, chair of the foundation’s board. ‘The projects will enable youth to explore creative solutions while allowing them to create tangible prototypes that use technology to improve access to justice.’
The effort to improve youth access to justice was inspired by Elizabeth Goldberg, who was the foundation’s chief executive from 2007 to 2015 and who previously served on the foundation’s board of trustees.” (Financial Post)

February 22, 2017 – “The state is helping hundreds of veterans by awarding $350,000 in grants to four Massachusetts organizations. The grant funding will go to Community Legal Aid, Inc., in Worcester; Montachusett Veterans Outreach Center in Gardner; The Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School in Boston; and Veterans Legal Services in Boston, Attorney General Maura Healey’s office announced Wednesday. Veterans seeking health services benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs healthcare system, housing and education assistance, discharge status upgrades, general legal representation, and veteran-specific employment will benefit from the funding, Healy’s office said in a statement.” (Mass Live)

Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants:

Legal Aid Ontario will honour HIV/AIDS legal activist Ryan Peck with the Sidney B. Linden Award at a ceremony Feb. 23 at Osgoode Hall, in recognition of his commitment to helping low-income Ontarians in the pursuit of access to justice. The award is named in honour of Legal Aid Ontario’s first board chair, Justice Sidney B. Linden, who has been involved with legal aid for over 35 years. Since its inception, the award has been presented to eight deserving recipients. The Toronto lawyer and the executive director of HIV & Aids Legal Clinic Ontario (HALCO) told The CJN he was surprised to be chosen for the award. “I went to law school because I was interested in issues surrounding social and economic justice, and I have devoted my career to those issues,” he said. (CJN)

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

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