Friday, November 8, 2019

November is Access to Justice Month!

L to R: Susan Warner & Dean Tom McHenry (VLS), David Koeninger (VLA), Daniel Richardson, Justices Beth Robinson & Karen Carroll, Erin Jacobsen (VLS), VBA President Beth Novotny and Mary Ashcroft (VBA)


On November 6, 2019, the Access to Justice Coalition held a press conference at the Vermont Supreme Court outside the courtroom. Partners from the Court, Vermont Legal Aid, Legal Services Vermont, Vermont Law School Legal Clinics, the Vermont Bar Foundation and the Vermont Bar Association gathered with advocates, friends, legislators, Congressional staff and the media to celebrate the Vermont Supreme Court’s declaration of November as Access to Justice Month! The main objective was to unveil the results of the Vermont Economic Impact Study of Low-Income Legal Services.

Justice Beth Robinson first welcomed the audience and spoke about providing Vermonters with meaningful access to justice.  Meaningful access to justice is more than being able to walk through the courthouse doors; it is having a litigant's interests represented effectively once in the courtroom.  She noted that thousands of Vermonters each year have no lawyer in court in cases that may have a profound impact on basic human needs, such as shelter, sustenance, safety, health, and child custody. Even when people face the loss of their homes, face limitations on their custody or reduced visit time with their children, and encounter debilitating financial consequences—there is no legal right to a state-subsidized lawyer in civil cases. 

For a few statistics, Justice Robinson noted that of the more than 1,100 Vermonters facing the loss of their homes through foreclosure, 80% are not represented by a lawyer in court.  Of the more than 1,100 Vermonters in divorce cases, 57% have no lawyer in court. The unrepresented figure is 80% for parties in parentage cases.  And a whopping 91% of defendants in landlord tenant cases are not represented. Justice Robinson made it clear that the Vermont Judiciary, in collaboration with other access-to-justice stakeholders, is committed to supporting a continuum of services to help Vermonters meaningfully engage with the judicial system when their essential civil legal needs are at stake—ranging from expanded self-help services to increased free and low cost representation of clients by the private bar and legal aid providers.

The Court, in declaring Access to Justice Month, urged stakeholders in the access to justice community to take steps to shine a light on their work, highlight the challenges facing low income Vermonters who have cases in court, and develop collaborative proposals to help Vermont move closer to the aspirational goal of 100 percent access to effective legal assistance for essential civil legal needs.

Next to speak was Montpelier lawyer Daniel Richardson, former VBA and VBF President, who highlighted some key findings in the Economic Impact Study. The Report from the Economic Impact Study is the first of its kind in Vermont to quantify the economic impact that low-income legal services, such as Vermont Legal Aid, Legal Services Vermont, the VBA Low Bono Project, and the Legal Clinics at Vermont Law School, have on the larger Vermont Economy. It was commissioned by the Vermont Bar Foundation with a grant from the Vermont Supreme Court.

Dan noted that the results of this study show that legal service groups provide two important benefits:  (1) They provide direct benefits to their clients through greater access to the legal system to defend their rights and to make meritorious claims and (2) They provide indirect benefits to all Vermonters in the form of a substantial economic returns to the larger economy. Most notably, for every $1 invested in Vermont low-income legal services, the State and Vermonters see a rate of return of $11, or a social impact return on investment of 1106%. 

This figure was derived from data showing that in 2017, Vermont’s Low-Income Legal Services had a $66.4 Million impact on the Vermont economy at a cost of $6 Million.  These positive economic impacts include: $32.7 Million in new income for low-income households; a $2.6 Million in cost savings (Preventing evictions, foreclosures, and domestic violence) and a $31.1 Million impact on local spending.

Low-Income Legal Services bring stability to Vermonters. Through access to services, income, prevention of homelessness, and protection of basic rights, low-income legal services protect those that are most vulnerable.  As these numbers show, these services help individuals and communities recover and obtain economic benefits.

Tangible illustrations of benefits to real Vermonters were provided by Erin Jacobsen from the South Royalton Legal Clinic and David Koeninger from Vermont Legal Aid. Erin gave an overview of the VLS clinic’s work for veterans and immigrants, for victims of domestic violence, and for children in the middle of contentious family law cases. The clinics help Vermonters access meaningful justice by providing legal representation where the stakes are especially high. Clinic lawyers and students make sure children’s voices are heard through their Children First project; they help vulnerable veterans with their complex legal needs in bankruptcy, housing, mental health and disability or VA benefits; and they help families win asylum so immigrants don’t have to return to a country where they suffered torture and instead stay and obtain work. Erin lamented that while they have hundreds of successful cases like those described, limited resources compel them to turn away cases on a regular basis.

David Koeninger next spoke of all the good work being done by the devoted lawyers at Vermont Legal Aid, Legal Services Vermont offices.  He told the story of a Vermonter, rendered blind by his cancer treatment, being unable to secure housing in a walkable community after being assigned housing on a busy rural area street with no sidewalks, until legal aid attorneys came to his assistance.  Or attorneys helping to cancel a contract for a woman, arriving at a dealership to find an affordable, white, used car, but pressured to leave hours later with a brand-new black car, $5,000 charged to her credit card and a monthly payment that she would never be able to afford.

In these examples, low-income legal services not only provided critical and meaningful assistance to improve the lives of individual Vermonters, but also how they provide societal economic benefit by helping clients to remain healthy, active, working members of their communities and of the consumer economy.

Mary Ashcroft, Legal Access Coordinator at the Vermont Bar Association, also wanted to highlight the “low bono” aspect of low-income legal services. Instead of doing completely pro bono work, Mary coordinates volunteer lawyers to represent clients for a greatly reduced rate of $60 per hour (capped at usually between 3 and 10 hours). Some lawyers handle those cases for free, and many finish the cases pro bono when they exceed the allotted hours. VBA low bono private attorneys help victims of crime stay safe with relief from abuse or no stalking orders; help low income landlords as well as tenants, and represent homeowners facing foreclosure; help children caught in custody disputes; advise adopting parents who want safe post-adoption contact between their children and the bio-parents who gave them up. Low bono lawyers help recapture money or obtain restitution for victims of theft; defend poor Vermonters against credit card companies; and represent older and disabled Vermonters who are thought to be in need of a guardian. The VBA program has over 100 attorneys statewide who have signed up to help. In the last twelve months, these low bono attorneys represented clients in over 300 cases statewide.

Justice Robinson closed the conference with acknowledgement of the friends and partners attending the conference and thanked everyone for their hard work and contributions.  The Vermont Access to Justice Coalition will continue to highlight the innumerable benefits of low-income legal service providers throughout the month, and beyond, as we all strive to close the access to justice gap in Vermont. For more information and stories, check out the Dave Graham WDEV radio show from November 7, 2019, featuring Dan Richardson, Mary Ashcroft and Erin Jacobsen and VT Digger’s November 6th Commentary by VBA’s Teri Corsones!


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