PSJD Public Interest News Digest – March 31, 2017

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

Happy Friday! The big news this week is the Department of Education’s answer to the ABA lawsuit regarding qualifying employers for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.  DOE’s position is there was no reversal because there were no prior approvals. Read on to follow the twists of logic used to come to this conclusion.

Here are the week’s headlines:

  • Access to Justice BC to receive $300,000 in funding;
  • University of Arizona College of Law launches pro bono patent program;
  • New York governor launches Liberty Defense Project that will provide pro bono legal services to immigrants;
  • Ontario to increase legal aid eligibility threshold;
  • In answer to ABA lawsuit, Education Department says it never changed loan forgiveness rules;
  • In-house counsel add voices to fight to save Legal Services Corporation;
  • Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants; and
  • Super Music Bonus!

The summaries:

March 24, 2017 – “Access to Justice BC [British Columbia] will be receiving a grant of $300,000 over three years from the Law Society of BC and the Law Foundation of BC. In an announcement issued on Tuesday, The Law Society of BC and Law Foundation of BC agreed to contribute $150,000 each to the fund. ‘Access to Justice BC is not about supporting a prescribed set of actions or an intellectual concept. The aim is to bring about a culture shift by aligning justice system stakeholders in taking user-centred, collaborative and evidence-based approaches to access to justice innovation,’ said Chief Justice Robert Bauman in a statement. Bauman is chairman of the group. ‘It is about producing the kind of collective impact that will transform users’ experiences with the justice system,’ he said. Established in 2014, Access to Justice BC consists of a board of 30 members and aims to improve access to justice for family, indigenous and civil law for all communities in British Columbia. The group has expanded its efforts over the years, which is why it needs the monetary assistance to help build its infrastructure. Access to Justice BC will receive $100,000 per year over the three years to fund initiatives.” (Canadian Lawyer)

March 24, 2017 – “The University of Arizona’s College of Law is launching a pro bono patent program for Arizona inventors. The Arizona Public Patent Program is designed to help financially under-resourced independent inventors, small businesses and startup companies obtain free legal counsel from local patent attorneys in filing patent applications and protecting their innovations. In 2015, nearly 3,000 patent applications were filed in Arizona, according to a UA news release. The complex legal process can cost up to $20,000. The UA is just one of four law schools in the country designated by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as a pro bono hub to serve inventors.” (Tuscon.com)

March 24, 2017 – “Gov. Cuomo on Friday announced the launch of The Liberty Defense Project, which will offer pro-bono legal services and other resources to immigrants regardless of their status. ‘During these stormy times, it’s critical all New Yorkers have access to their full rights under the law,’ Cuomo said. ‘The first-of-its-kind Liberty Defense Project will provide legal support to protect immigrants and ensure this state is living up to the values embodied by the Lady in our Harbor.’ The effort will be coordinated by the state’s Office for New Americans and team together 182 advocacy organizations, 14 law schools, 21 law firms and 14 bar associations.” (New York Daily News)

March 27, 2018 – “Ontario is providing more people with affordable access to legal services by increasing the financial eligibility threshold for legal aid by another six per cent. Effective April 1, 2017, about 140,000 more people will be eligible to receive the legal services they need, regardless of their ability to pay. This has been made possible by the province’s investments in Legal Aid Ontario (LAO) to increase access to legal aid services for low-income and vulnerable people province-wide. This is part of Ontario’s 2014 commitment to expand access to legal aid services provided by LAO to an additional one million Ontarians in ten years. With more than 500,000 additional people who will be eligible for legal aid, Ontario is now more than half-way to this goal. Improving access to justice is part of the government’s plan to keep communities safe and help people in their everyday lives.” (Ontario Newsroom)

March 28, 2017 – “In response to a lawsuit from the American Bar Association, the U.S. Department of Education appears to be arguing that it has never issued any approval to participate in its Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The ABA sued the DOE on Dec. 20, after the PSLF program began disqualifying ABA employees and other public interest lawyers who had previously been approved for participation in the program. But in its answer filed March 23, the DOE appears to argue that it did not change the terms of the PSLF program, because approvals issued by its loan servicer were tentative. Therefore, it says, there were never any approvals.” “Name plaintiff Geoffrey Burkhart, who at the relevant time worked for the ABA’s Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, alleged in the lawsuit that he’d received confirmation in 2014 that his ECF was accepted. Before taking the job, in fact, he confirmed eligibility with both the ABA and the loan servicer, FedLoan Servicing. FedLoan Servicing later sent him a letter accepting his ECF, which was attached to the lawsuit as an exhibit. But more than two years later, the complaint says, FedLoan Servicing sent Burkhart a letter saying the ABA ‘do[es] not provide a qualifying service,’ and therefore his participation in the PSLF program was revoked after ‘further research and after consulting with the department.’ That means Burkhart’s 2.5 years of loan payments will not count toward loan forgiveness, despite the initial assurances of FedLoan Servicing. The Department of Education’s answer denies that Burkhart’s ECF had ever been approved, or that its letter revoking his participation was a reversal.” The ABA is committed to holding DOE accountable on PSLF, and we will keep you posted as the case progresses. (ABA Journal)

March 28, 2017 – “Leaders of corporate legal departments—representing technology, pharmaceutical, media, entertainment, retail and manufacturing, among other industries— urged Congress in a letter on Tuesday to preserve the LSC at a funding level of $450 million, essentially the same amount it received in fiscal year 2010 adjusted for inflation. The LSC’s fiscal 2017 budget request was $502 million. Top in-house lawyers said the ‘minimal investment in LSC generates a significant positive return for business and the health of individuals and communities across the nation.’ And they said the agency creates a ‘level playing field’ for many lower- and moderate-income families who cannot afford a lawyer. The LSC’s national framework, they said, provides the basic structure for civil legal services and ‘supports the countless hours of pro bono representation provided by corporate legal departments and in-house attorneys.'” (Law.com)

Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants:

Law students in action: Ten Vanderbilt Law students spent their spring break in Biloxi engaging in pro bono service work as a part of the Law Students for Social Justice organization. Three teams of students worked on education, expungement and other cases for low-income residents under the direction of staff attorneys at the Mississippi Justice Center. “All three groups made a real impact,” said Hannah Keith, the student organizer of the Pro Bono Spring Break program. “We made a dent in the attorneys’ workload.” (Tennessee Bar Association)

AND

It’s tax season, and many people are working with tax preparers.  But some preparers are giving away their services for free to elderly or low income clients.  They’re tax law students in the Pro Bono program at the University of South Carolina School of Law.  The Pro Bono program provides volunteer services to many causes year round: clerks for pro bono lawyers, research, wills and other areas of the law. Student Robbin Wilder says the program teaches her valuable skills working side-by-side with lawyers, and keeps her humble and grounded.  She and fellow student Reed Swearingen plan to keep doing pro bono work after they become lawyers, which program Director Pam Robinson says is part of the point – to help make a difference in people’s lives by giving back. Listen to the full story at the link. (South Carolina Public Radio)

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

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