PSJD Public Interest News Digest – May 5, 2017

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

Happy Friday! Funding is the story of the week. Let’s take a moment to celebrate what these funds can do in the right hands. We’ll get back to the greater funding debate later.

Here are the week’s headlines:

  • Advocacy groups take British Columbia government to court over legal aid;
  • Idaho Supreme Court allows ACLU class action public defense case to proceed;
  • Seattle Mayor signs $1 million immigrant legal defense fund;
  • Corporate Pro Bono publishes 2016 Benchmarking Report;
  • Kentucky starts hotline for free legal help over custody and visitation issues;
  • Foundation gives $500,000 to University of Maine School of Law’s immigration clinic;
  • Pro bono reporting in Indiana draws mixed reaction;
  • Michigan will soon be asked to pay more for indigent defense;
  • Stop gap budget includes LSC funding, but crisis is not averted;
  • South Texas College of Law Houston receives $1.27 million gift to launch criminal defense certification program;
  • Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants; and
  • Super Music Bonus!

The summaries:

April 27, 2017 – “Three Vancouver advocacy groups say funding cuts to B.C. legal aid have made it harder for women fleeing abusive relationships to get help from lawyers. As a result, West Coast Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (West Coast LEAF) and the B.C. Public Interest Advocacy Centre (BCPIAC), with help from the Single Mothers’ Alliance B.C., have filed a constitutional challenge against the province and the Legal Services Society.” “In their challenge, BCPIAC and West Coast LEAF say the financial eligibility criteria and the cap on legal hours imposed by the Legal Services Society is unconstitutional. The B.C. Government has not responded to a request for comment on the challenge.” (CBC News)

April 28, 2017 – “The Idaho Supreme Court today ruled that the ACLU’s class action lawsuit challenging Idaho’s public defense system statewide will proceed. In a unanimous decision, written by Idaho’s Chief Justice, the Court said that the Idahoans who brought the suit had raised systemic violations of fundamental constitutional rights. The case will now proceed for the courts to determine the extent of the violations. The lawsuit, called Tucker v. State of Idaho, was filed in 2015 by the ACLU, the ACLU of Idaho, and the global law firm Hogan Lovells.” “[The] Idaho Supreme Court opinion dismisses Idaho Governor Butch Otter as a defendant in the case, concluding that his connection to Idaho’s public defense system is too indirect for him to be held accountable for Idaho’s human rights violations regarding public defense. The class action lawsuit will continue, however, against both the State of Idaho itself as well as the members of its Public Defense Commission.” (ACLU News)

April 28, 2017 – “Mayor Ed Murray was joined by Councilmembers M. Lorena González and Tim Burgess in signing an ordinance creating a $1 million legal defense fund for Seattle residents and workers who cannot afford legal representation or services in immigration proceedings.” “The legal defense fund will be structured as contracts that eligible community-based organizations can apply for to hire immigration attorneys, legal staff, and services to aid immigrants who are detained, as well as those who are not detained but facing deportation and other complex cases. Unlike other courts, people in immigration proceedings do not have the right to a court-appointed attorney. The Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs will administer the program, which will become available this summer.” (The Skanner)

May 1, 2017 – “CPBO is pleased to share the 2016 Benchmarking Report: An Overview of In-House Pro Bono. This report summarizes the responses of 55 legal departments, providing unique insight into current trends in in-house pro bono. Key hightlights:

  • 87% of departments have pro bono committees
  • 92% of departments have non-attorneys who participate in pro bono
  • 91% of departments work with legal services providers that provide professional liability insurance
  • 55% of departments enter into pro bono partnerships with other legal departments
  • 29% of departments engage in global pro bono”

(Corporate Pro Bono)

May 1, 2017 – “A new telephone hotline gives qualifying parents free legal assistance related to their custody and visitation concerns. The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services (CHFS) Office of Child Support Enforcement (CSE) has an agreement with the Legal Aid Society (LAS) to operate the ‘Custody and Visitation’ Hotline. The statewide service is for eligible parents, on an income-based scale, who have concerns regarding custody and visitation issues with their children. Steve Veno, Commissioner of the CHFS Department for Income Services, which oversees the CSE, said an LAS attorney will handle all hotline calls and provide legal advice or assistance to callers such as how to file a motion, how to file or change a child custody or visitation order in the appropriate court and how to work through visitation and custody issues.” (WKYT)

May 2, 2017 – “The Refugee and Human Rights Clinic at the University of Maine School of Law has received a $500,000 grant to offer legal services to immigrants over the next four years. The money comes from the Sam L. Cohen Foundation of South Portland, which provided the seed money to get the clinic started five years ago and has given some funding each year for its operation. But this is the first year the foundation has underwritten the program’s entire cost — and comes at a time when requests for legal help at the clinic are on the rise.” (Bangor Daily News)

May 3, 2017 – “The first round of data collected from Indiana’s new pro bono reporting rule invoked opposing reactions among the members of the Coalition for Court Access who recently reviewed the numbers. Some thought the amount of time and money lawyers donated to legal aid was shameful, while others were thrilled with the level of giving.” “Being just the first year, drawing inferences from the numbers is difficult, but Scott Wylie, member of the CCA pro bono working group, said the numbers provide a start.” “The numbers show less than 50 percent of Indiana attorneys in 2015 gave their time to helping clients who either could not pay anything or could only pay a greatly reduced rate. Of the 15,544 Hoosier lawyers covered by the reporting rule, 41 percent donated only their time. Adding in the 896 attorneys who gave both time and money, that total bumps up to 47 percent.” (The Indiana Lawyer)

May 3, 2017 – “Lawmakers’ years-old promise to invest in criminal defense for poor people is about to be tested as a state panel proposes new limits on court-appointed attorney caseloads. The Michigan Indigent Defense Commission, created under a 2013 law that came with a legislative promise that the state would pay for reforms, has proposed three new standards for Michigan’s county-run court-appointed attorney systems. The standards would limit attorneys to no more than 150 felonies or 400 non-traffic misdemeanors per year, forbid judges or judicial employees from choosing or paying the attorneys who argue in their courtrooms, and set new minimum qualifications for attorneys who represent criminal defendants who can’t afford their own lawyer.” “The commission will accept public comment on the new standards through October, with a public hearing to happen in late summer or early fall, before final proposals are sent to the Department of Licensing & Regulatory Affairs for approval. The first batch of standards, which were unveiled in 2015, haven’t yet been approved. LARA spokesman Jason Moon said a decision should happen ‘in the next several weeks.'” (Lansing State Journal)

May 3, 2017 – Over the weekend, Congress reached a deal to keep the government open through September. “The spending agreement Congress brokered retains $385 million for Legal Services Corp., the national organization that funds services for low income, disabled and senior citizens. That measure restores the current year’s funding at budgeted levels.” However, that does not mean the danger has passed. Far from it, experts warn. “‘The crisis is not averted. Quite the contrary,” said Steve Gottlieb, executive director of Atlanta Legal Aid. ‘We will see all summer about what happens the next year.’ ‘[T]he budget the president proposed [for 2018] has no money in it for the Legal Services Corp,’ Gottlieb said.” As has been widely reported, the White House is gearing up for the bigger budget fight at the end of the summer. Pressure needs to continue on Congress to fully fund civil legal aid. (Daily Report)

May 4, 2017 – “South Texas College of Law Houston has received a $1.27 million gift aimed at launching a criminal defense certification program, which is meant to train defense lawyers to more effectively represent indigent defendants in the city’s courts. The money came from an anonymous donor, the school said in a statement, adding that it would be the first program of its kind in the state. The program would be geared toward preparing lawyers to meet the minimum experience requirements to be appointed as counsel for indigent defendants, the school said.” “Law students can join the program, which focuses on criminal law and procedure, in their second year. Students in the program also will participate in a yearlong Criminal Defense Clinic—an addition to the school’s Randall O. Sorrels Legal Clinics—in which they work alongside criminal defense attorneys on staff who are themselves included on the county’s indigent list. After graduation, the lawyers will be mentored by Houston-area criminal defense attorneys to help ease their transition into practice, the school said, adding that the mentorship program will produce attorneys who are prepared for defending indigent defendants in court.” (Texas Lawyer)

Spotlight on Outstanding Public Servants:

The Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania has presented Nicole Sloane, an assistant Erie County public defender, with the Gideon Award for indigent defense work. She received the award, which recognizes “a person or organization who has significantly improved, promoted, elevated or otherwise benefited indigent defense in Pennsylvania,” in Harrisburg on Friday, according to the PDA. Sloane clerked for Erie County Judge William R. Cunningham before becoming an assistant public defender in 2006. She earned her law degree in 2005 from Duquesne University School of Law. Sloane was commissioned as an officer during her service in the U.S. Army and served as a member of the Army National Guard. She is also the only Erie County lawyer who is certified to try death penalty cases. (

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

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