The Commission is engaged in a broad array of efforts to improve access to justice for indigent District residents. Current initiatives are described briefly below. Click on each entry to learn more.
Public Funding for Civil Legal Services
Since its inception, the Commission has taken a leadership role in securing public funding for civil legal services. In 2006, the Commission persuaded the D.C. Council to establish a landmark annual appropriation—the Access to Justice Program—and since then has led community–wide efforts to secure and preserve that funding. Civil legal services play a vital role in ensuring that low–income District residents receive assistance with critical legal issues. The need for these services has increased due to the recession, rising unemployment, and loss of affordable housing. In its first six years, the Commission secured over $20 million to fund the provision of legal services in underserved areas and in housing–related cases, as well as to establish a shared legal interpreter bank and the District’s first law school loan repayment program for legal services lawyers.
SAILS (Senior Attorney Initiative for Legal Services) Project
In 2010, the Commission and the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program, together with eleven leading District law firms, launched the SAILS Project, which seeks to harness the experience and talent of senior law firm attorneys to assist thinly stretched legal services organizations. The eleven Founding Partner firms have taken steps to to institutionalize a senior lawyer program in their firms that encourages and supports senior attorneys to undertake pro bono work as a central focus of the next stage of their careers.
Private Funding for Civil Legal Services
In December 2010, the Commission, along with eight leading law firms, launched the Raising the Bar in D.C. Campaign. The Campaign sets benchmark levels for law firm giving to local legal services organizations and recognizes firms that donate at those levels. The District’s model is somewhat unique in that it sets benchmarks as a percentage of D.C. office revenue rather than on a per–attorney basis. In the Campaign’s inaugural year, the 23 participating firms that qualified for the Raising the Bar in D.C. Leadership Circle in 2011 donated over $3 million to local legal services organizations. This represents a half million dollar increase in giving by those firms over 2012 levels.
Legal Needs Assessment
Shortly after its creation, the Commission made one of its first priorities a close examination of the civil legal needs of District residents and the capacity of the existing network to meet those needs. The resulting report—Justice for All?—documented an appalling justice gap. In every area examined—eviction prevention, domestic violence, public benefits, child support, employment, consumer and many others—the need for services far outstripped the supply. In domestic violence cases, for example, where the safety of the victim and often her children was imperiled, the representation rate was a mere two percent. Rates in landlord–tenant cases, where families were faced with the loss of homes, were barely better at three percent. This legal needs report continues to inform the Commission’s efforts to bring legal services to chronially underserved communities.
Assessing the Impact of the Recession
In 2009, the Commission released a joint report with the D.C. Consortium of Legal Services Providers—Rationing Justice—that examined the impact of the recession on access to justice in the District. The Report found that in 2009 alone the legal services network lost more than 25% of its funding, 12% of its legal staff, and nearly 40% of its non-legal staff. This required providers to curtail service provision just as client needs rose dramatically. The Commission continues to examine the ongoing impact of the recession on the legal services network and identify resources to maximize services to indigent District residents.
District of Columbia Courts
The Commission is working closely with the D.C. Courts to make the Courts even more accessible to low–income and pro se litigants. In recent years, the Commission has worked with the Court to launch a fast–track Housing Conditions Calendar that gives tenants a simplified mechanism for seeking redress of housing code violations. It has also worked with the Court to ensure access to interpreters in all civil cases, strengthen Code of Judicial Conduct provisions governing judicial assistance to pro se litigants, improve the application and process for fee-waiver applications, remediate child-support related problems, and improve the experience of pro se litigants. The Commission is engaged in ongoing projects related to limited scope of representation, debt collection and foreclosure issues, training of judges and staff on working with pro se litigants, and language access. Commissioners meet regularly with the Chief Judge of the Superior Court of D.C.
Office of Administrative Hearings (OAH)
The Commission is working with OAH to increase legal representation of and provide legal information to low-income litigants who appear before the agency. It also provided support to OAH as it developed its first Pro Se Resource Center.
The Commission is working on many fronts to increase pro bono service. In 2011, the Commission and the D.C. Bar Pro Bono Program worked with the D.C. Courts to launch the Capital Pro Bono Honor Roll, which recognizes attorneys who provide 50 hours of pro bono service or more – or 100 hours or more for the higher recognition category – yearly. In the program’s inaugural year, over 3,000 attorneys registered for the Honor Roll, and over 2,000 of them registered for the High Honor Roll. In 2007, the Commission and the D.C. Bar launched an initiative to increase the amount of pro bono work performed by the 51st to 100th largest law firms in the District. As a result, nearly half of those firms agreed to devote 3% or 5% of their annual billable hours to pro bono work. The Commission is actively working to advance senior lawyer pro bono.
Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA)
The Commission has collaborated with the D.C. Bar Foundation to increase the amount of IOLTA funds that the Foundation receives and grants to legal services providers. The Commission and Bar Foundation together played an integral role in securing the D.C. Bar Board of Governors’ recommendation to adopt mandatory participation and interest rate comparability requirements.
The Commission is developing ways to increase knowledge about the availability of legal services among social service, health, and faith-based organizations. It is also working with the legal services network to increase residents’ knowledge of their legal rights.