Pro Bono Spotlight June 2004

Do you ever wonder why, when there are legal services programs across the state dedicated to providing free representation to the poor, bar leaders and pro bono managers hound you to accept pro bono cases? And, why you periodically are asked to donate money to provide free representation to the poor? You may have even asked yourself: Doesn’t the government pay for that?

On April 4, 2004, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article vividly illustrated the answers to these questions. Describing the impact of recent funding cutbacks on Neighborhood Legal Services, which serves Allegheny, Beaver, Butler and Lawrence counties, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Barbara White Stack wrote:

A low-income mother of two got an eviction notice from the Housing Authority alleging she had unauthorized people living in her apartment. The evidence consisted solely of an anonymous call. The woman sought help from Neighborhood Legal Services. At no cost to her, a lawyer persuaded a federal judge to stop an eviction that would have been based on no proof or testimony.

That’s the kind of case NLS has taken for 38 years. It just doesn’t take nearly as many anymore.

Neighborhood Legal Services Association closed its last neighborhood legal office last week.

Wasting away like one of its impoverished, ill-fed clients, the once-robust, 21-office operation has been reduced to a single location in each of the four counties it serves…

“It really pained me to make this decision,” said Executive Director Robert V. Racunas, who began his NLS career more than 30 year(s) ago in McKeesport. “But it just became inevitable.”

That’s because the agency lost $600,000 in state and federal funding this year, a significant hit to a $5 million budget….

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A woman who had secured a protection from abuse order to get her violent ex-husband out of the house soon faced another crisis: He demanded custody of their child. He claimed she was neglecting their young daughter while attending college. She turned to NLS, and her lawyer convinced the judge the allegations were baseless. A year and a half later, the woman had a degree in social work, a job and a deposit for a townhouse.

That woman was lucky. The agency is unable to serve four out of five qualified people who need help. The number of NLS lawyers has plummeted from 78 in 1979 to 34 today…

Copyright, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2004, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

The NLS experience is not unique. Across Pennsylvania and the United States, legal services programs are severely under-funded and understaffed. The result — people like those described above often go without representation.

This need can be compounded by conflicts of interest that arise when a legal services program is asked to represent a person who was an opposing party in another matter the program handled. Again, the result — people in need often go without representation.

Many Pennsylvania lawyers have responded to this need, despite their crowded schedules, by donating their services to the poor. In Lackawanna County, for example, approximately one-third of the bar participates in pro bono work. On the opposite side of the state, in the counties served by NLS, 500 lawyers and paralegals donated nearly 5,700 hours of pro bono work last year.

As director of Lackawanna Pro Bono, Inc., a pro bono referral program in Lackawanna County, I speak daily to low-income people who need pro bono representation because they have no place else to turn for help with serious legal problems. One such person was a woman who returned home from work one day with her young children to find that her landlord had locked them out of their apartment by nailing boards to the door. She immediately contacted North Penn Legal Services, the local legal services program, but learned that they couldn’t help her, although her income was near the poverty level, because they had previously represented her ex-husband. At the suggestion of North Penn Legal Services, she requested help from Lackawanna Pro Bono, Inc. Fortunately, we were able to find a pro bono attorney to step forward and assert her rights under landlord-tenant law, protecting her and her children from homelessness.

The need is great and is getting worse. The American Bar Association has estimated that only 20-percent of America’s poor are represented when they have civil legal problems. In Pennsylvania, according to Pennsylvania Bar Association estimates, there is one attorney actively practicing in Pennsylvania for every 300 residents, but only one legal services attorney for every 6,600 people living in poverty in Pennsylvania.

The contributions you can make as a lawyer are tremendous. For information on how you can help, contact PBA Pro Bono Coordinator David Keller Trevaskis, Esq. at 1-800-932-0311, Ext. 2236, or david.trevaskis@pabar.org.