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Legally Speaking


Issue: February, 2009
Author: Helaine M. Barnett

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The Importance of Quality in Legal Aid

As lawyers and judges, we take pride in our dedication to equal access to justice and draw strength from knowing that Americans cherish the ideal of equal justice under law.

The decision by the Wyoming Supreme Court to establish an Access to Justice Commission reaffirms its commitment to the ideal of equal access to justice and represents an important step for the state of Wyoming and for the national effort to ensure the poor have an opportunity to secure basic human needs, such as safe and habitable housing, medical care and protection from domestic violence.

The chief justice and justices of the Wyoming Supreme Court, other state and federal judges, leaders of the Wyoming State Bar and the Wyoming legal community have sent a powerful signal about the importance of the availability of high-quality civil legal services to low-income individuals and families in Wyoming. Across the nation, the creation of Access to Justice Commissions has energized efforts to increase funding and pro bono support for legal aid. In Wyoming, the Commission’s creation and future actions will enhance the provision of civil legal aid. This crucial undertaking by the state’s legal community is applauded and appreciated.

From lessons learned in other states, we know that when judges make access to justice a priority, legislators, lawyers, corporate leaders and others often significantly increase their commitment to helping meet the civil legal needs of the poor and strive to make justice available to all, rather than to just those who can afford to pay for it.

What is Quality Legal Assistance?
Legal aid clients are among the most vulnerable in the nation - women seeking protection from abuse, mothers trying to obtain child support, families facing unlawful evictions or foreclosures that could leave them homeless, and senior citizens, veterans and others trying to obtain federal benefits for which they qualify. Quality legal assistance is vital to ensuring that civil legal aid makes a difference in the lives of the people who seek help.

But what is quality legal assistance? What does quality mean in the demanding, often stressful environment of a legal aid program? How can quality be promoted in the legal aid community? These are only a few of the questions that will be confronting Wyoming’s Access to Justice Commission. Quality is often difficult to define as it necessarily encompasses many values, concepts, procedures and systems.

Congress recognized the importance of quality legal assistance when it passed the 1974 law that created the Legal Services Corporation (LSC). The law stated that “there is a need to provide equal access to the system of justice in our Nation for individuals who seek redress of grievances.” Congress also wrote that “there is a need to provide high-quality legal assistance to those who would be otherwise unable to afford adequate legal counsel.”

For legal aid programs, attention to quality requires constant self-evaluation. It is important to periodically assess whether programs are providing legal assistance in the types of cases that reflect the most critical needs of the community. Outreach and partnerships in the communities we serve ensure that we are aware of the changing needs of clients. We must be responsive to those needs and make changes in the services that we provide when necessary.

LSC Quality Initiative
Five years ago, LSC launched a Quality Initiative to renew the Corporation’s focus on providing high-quality legal assistance to eligible clients of LSC-funded programs. The centerpiece of the Quality Initiative is the revised LSC Performance Criteria, issued in 2007. The LSC Performance Criteria incorporates references to the ABA Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid, which shares similar goals.

The revised Performance Criteria reflect LSC’s sense of current best practices that promote the delivery of high-quality legal services. The revised Criteria have proved to be instrumental in helping LSC-funded programs provide more effective and efficient services by providing guidance on many aspects of legal services delivery, including self-assessments, client communities’ needs assessments and strategic planning, legal work management, private attorney involvement and program governance and administration.

The Performance Criteria are flexible, recognizing that programs must make choices regarding resource allocation in order to focus on the areas where the opportunities for the greatest improvement will translate into the biggest impact on low-income communities.

In general, robust legal aid programs:

  • Develop a plan to serve those in need.
    Quality programs identify the most pressing civil legal needs of low-income individuals and families in the community and direct resources toward those needs. They do this collaboratively with other partners in the community, such as social service agencies, law schools, the private bar, the judiciary, the business community, and churches. Probably the most important part of this planning is the periodic assessment of what is working, what is not and making the necessary adjustments to address new client needs as they develop.

  • Reach out to those in need.
    Building trust between the program and the communities being served is critical. Quality programs conduct their work in ways that promote effective relations with clients and low-income communities and reinforce the dignity of clients.

  • Provide effective representation.
    Quality programs ensure that attorneys and case handlers have the necessary expertise, and conduct their direct legal assistance activities in a high-quality fashion that comports with state law requirements, professional ethics and other relevant standards of practice.

  • Benefit from engaged and effective governing boards.
    Governing bodies of legal aid programs must help to articulate a vision and mission for their programs. Board members must have a strong belief in the mission of their legal aid program and communicate their enthusiasm and support to others in their communities. Governing bodies have a critical oversight role, and a program’s board is the entity with ultimate responsibility for ensuring that the legal aid program is operating consistent with all funder rules and regulations.

    Board members must be knowledgeable about program operations, request and receive pertinent program information enabling their oversight, understand their roles as board members, and ensure their program operates in accordance with laws and internal policies, including ethical issues involving conflict of interest and confidentiality.

  • Draw inspiration from their executive directors.
    The role of the executive director is crucial. Executive directors have to strike the right balance between providing visionary leadership to their staffs and performing the nuts-and-bolts work of a manager, administering all aspects of their program, holding the staff accountable and reconciling funding with priorities. They must serve as mentors, be able to communicate program values, champion diversity, make hard choices and delegate authority. Most importantly, executive directors—by leading by example—promote respect for clients and stress excellence in providing legal assistance.

Private Attorney Involvement
Another key component of a high-quality legal aid program is an active, private attorney involvement program, which is required under LSC regulations. Successful legal aid programs encourage and implement creative and innovative approaches to engage private attorneys in the delivery of legal services to low-income individuals and families in order to help serve more clients.

Technological innovation enables access to legal services across large geographical areas and to individuals who have difficulty getting to a courthouse. Technology also assists courts to operate more efficiently and effectively and it enables the sharing of legal information through statewide websites. Programs may use their websites to provide information and commonly used legal forms, accept online requests for services, and offer instructional videos, online workshops and even “LiveHelp” message exchanges.

Recently, LSC developed a strategic vision for technology as part of its commitment to enhancing the quality of legal services. That vision led to publication of a reference guide, “Technologies That Should Be in Place in a Legal Aid Office Today.” LSC expects programs to use this document to assess their use of technology to deliver legal services.

Nationally, the outlook for significant funding increases for the coming year is not encouraging. The recession will disproportionately affect the poor, placing them at risk of losing their jobs, homes and health care. The dire economic outlook for the nation suggests that even more people will be eligible for LSC-funded services than have shown up in previous studies and estimates of unmet need.

Wyoming, like many other states, needs to do more to address the “justice gap,” the difference between what the nation has promised on access to justice and what is provided and, as in other states, Wyoming can do more to provide access to civil legal aid. The creation of the Access to Justice Commission is an important step.

The path to quality is often tedious. Funding can ebb and flow. But passion for the civil legal aid mission helps overcome many obstacles. By working together, our nation’s promise of equal access to justice will one day be not just for some, but truly for all.

Helaine M. Barnett is the longest-serving Legal Services Corporation president, beginning her sixth year in that position. Prior to her appointment, she served for 37 years at The Legal Aid Society of New York City, the oldest and largest legal aid organization in the country, as a lawyer and attorney in charge of the Society’s multi-office Civil Division. She can be reached at hbarnett@lsc.gov.

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