Access to Justice: South Dakota Style

Below is an excerpt from the South Dakota State of the Judiciary delivered by Chief Justice David Gilbertson on January 12, 2011. As with Iowa’s excerpts, this pertains to access to justice for people with low-income or those of modest means. Of note – service to self-represented litigants (SRLs).

ACCESS TO THE COURTS BY THE UNDERPRIVILEGED

A Chief Justice from another state told me that 70% of the divorces in her state are now done by people attempting to represent themselves. We have an increasing number of our citizens who cannot afford to hire an attorney even if one is available in their area. Yet these citizens need and deserve access to our courts. We have worked with the Access to Justice Program of the State Bar to encourage attorneys to provide free legal services to those who need them. Currently there are 275 attorneys who have agreed to do so, an increase of 100 attorneys from last year. This number, while impressive, falls significantly short of the existing need.

Our Unified Judicial System has created many legal forms for those individuals who for various reasons, economic and otherwise, will be representing themselves in a judicial proceeding. At this point the forms deal with domestic relations issues such as divorce, name changes, and child support. Many of these forms are available free on the Internet at the UJS website, http://ujs.sd.gov/, or for a small fee at any Clerk of Court’s office. We hope to expand their scope and availability in the future.

-RFW

Focus on Pro Bono: Margaret S. “Molly” Day

Recently I had a moment to sit down with a law school classmate, Margaret S. Day aka Molly and discuss pro bono and public interest law with her.


  • I understand that you were active with pro bono in law school.  Please tell me about your experiences there.

I was very fortunate to become involved with Women in Law and the Pro Bono Board in law school, and those two entities opened up a world of volunteering for me.  I participated in Sistercare‘s Battered Incarcerated Women‘s project, which allowed me to assist women in correctional facilities with their legal proceeding against their former abusers.  Going to the correctional facilities and meeting these women from all walks of life who had harmed their abusers and then been punished for that was a real eye opening experience.  I learned a lot about appellate proceedings and a lot about life from that experience.

I also volunteered with Sistercare’s legal advocacy project at the courthouse.  I sat in Sistercare’s office a few hours a week and helped battered women fill out temporary restraining orders and other documents to protect them against their abusers.  I also went to court as moral support for some of these women who were facing their abusers.  Again, I learned a lot about the legal process and life with this project.


In law school, I was privileged to serve as President of the Women in Law Association.  I took part in the organization of many fundraisers, such as the Race Judicata, a race to raise money for a local charity, and a large garage sale in the lobby of the law school, among others.  I learned so much about fundraising from the ground up with these endeavors, and I use this experience today on every nonprofit board I serve.


  • What first drew you to pro bono work?

I was drawn to become a lawyer and especially to pro bono work when I was in undergrad.  To work my way through undergrad, I worked in a casino in Tunica, Mississippi, what was, and may still be, the poorest county in the United States.  To get to work, I would have to drive by ramshackle shacks built on mud and built of plywood, with no plumbing, and naked children.  Prior to that job, I had not been exposed to poverty at that level.  These same residents would come to the casino and spend their welfare checks at the slot machines.  Compared to these people, I was wealthy with my casino salary and tips. I so wanted to help, but had no idea where to start.  It was when the casinos were fighting unionization that I learned I might be able to persduade with argument.  I was asked by the cocktail waitresses to be a spokeperson for their interests.  The ensuing discussions opened my eyes to the law as a career possibility and way to help people.


  • Please tell me about your current pro bono work.

Currently I spend most of my pro bono work helping LowCountry Legal Aid, a nonprofit organization that provides legal services to those who could not otherwise afford it.  The majority of the cases we see are family law related.  This cause is so important and some people don’t understand it.  Can you imagine being married to an abuser of you or your children and not being able to get a divorce?    My work with LCLA has certainly influenced my pro bono work.   I am more willing to take family law cases even if it is an area that I have never practiced in before. The need is so great, and I am willing to ask other lawyers with experience to assist me and bring me up to speed, just so a person will have a lawyer.  Keeping a nonprofit going in this economy is a full time job, especially a nonprofit that is little understood by those outside of the legal field.  I serve on the Board for LCLA, and as its Community Outreach Coordinator, two roles that could easily fill a full time schedule.  I also assist in setting up wills clinics for groups in the community.  We recently did a wills clinic for the Bluffton Fire Department, and we hope to do another one soon for another service or community profession.


I am also a PAI (private attorney involvement) for South Carolina Legal Services.  I take cases at a reduced rate for people that could not otherwise afford an attorney.  Right now I am representing a man that is trying to adopt his nephew.  I am learning a lot about adoption!  Luckily I have a friend from law school that does adoptions all the time, and she has provided immeasureable advice.


  • How do you find out about this work?

I usually find out about pro bono projects through friends.  Robin Wheeler (you!) introduced me to the SC Legal Services people at a Bar Convention.  My friend Mary Sharp, a lawyer in private practice, introduced me to Lowcountry Legal Aid and asked me to be on the Board while she was its president.  My friend Pam Robinson of USC Law school has opened my eyes to many pro bono opportunities. Additionally, I have nonlawyer friends that ask me to help at events.


I wish that I had the time to do more pro bono work for LCLA.  I would like to start taking cases for them in estate planning and advance directives.  I never anticipated that there might be a need for these areas for people that need legal services, but I have found that all people need to feel secure about the guardian of their children should they pass, or the person making their healthcare or end of life decisions.  I am hoping that I will soon be able to devote a set time every week to assisting LCLA with this area.


  • What other projects have you done?

I would like to talk about my appointed cases.  I have been appointed to represent some men in my past three cases that were accused of very nefarious activities.  I was appointed to represent a man that spoke no English and was accused of shaking his baby, and his baby was taken away from him.  He was a decent man and a good father, but because he did not speak any English and was lower income, his baby had not been diagnosed with a rare brain problem she had since birth.  A small fall on to the floor produced symptoms of shaken baby.  It was very rewarding to prove that he was a good father and get his baby back into the home.  This case could have fallen through the cracks and the baby could have entered the system.  Luckily, that did not happen.
Another appointed case I had was a father accused of sexually molesting his child.  He had not molested her and in fact had not been allowed to see her for two years. He had a disability and was not the most educated person, so he had been pushed through the DSS system without understanding the ramifications. Indeed, he had been paying child support on a child that he averred was not his for two years.  After almost a year of hearings and arguments, he was allowed to stop paying child support for the child that was not his, and have visitation for the child that was.
In cases like these, the appointed attorney is often the only fail safe the client has to see that justice is done.  In these difficult economic times, the judicial system and the state agencies are so overburdened and understaffed that they cannot possibly investigate all of the facts and make sure all parties are represented to the utmost.  The appointed attorney must give those cilents 100%.


  • What have you learned by doing pro bono?

I have learned so much about humanity, good and bad, and been surprised by who was good and who was bad.  And i have learned so much about the law that I would not otherwise have learned.  I have met the most interesting people while doing pro bono work; people I would not have met otherwise, if i had not ventured out to do a pro bono project.  My pro bono clients have been so grateful for my representation, and it has always been a rewarding experience to represent them.  I have gained a new respect for the American justice system.  Many times the pro bono lawyer is the one last stopgap for the client in an overburdened legal system or state agency system.  In many of these cases the person has not been heard in his or her steps through the system and the pro bono lawyer is the first person to listen to the person and validate them.


  • Has this changed your view of law or pro bono service?

My view of the law has been changed by my pro bono service.  My first job out of law school was working for a government agency, and my next job was working for a big firm.  In both jobs, I was able to get a routine down to do the most work efficiently to make the most money and produce the best results for my clients.  But in both jobs, my clients were big entities and it was easy to lose sight of the real purpose of the legal system.  With my pro bono work, I have represented individuals who must rely on the justice system to decide the biggest things in their life.  I have gained a renewed respect for due process and our judiciary in this process.


  • What do want to tell lawyers or law students about pro bono?

Just do it!  Not only will you learn some legal skills, get your name out there, and meet new people, but you will make the world a better place for some lucky client.

Ed McMahon, Your Legacy Lives On

Most everyone is familiar with Ed McMahon and the American Family Publishers Sweepstakes prize.  And some of us waited patiently for him to show up at our door with balloons and an over-sized check. Watching the few lucky prize winners was always a thrill. And today I had the honor of delivering balloons and flowers to the 2009 Ellen Hines Smith South Carolina Legal Services award recipient, Maureen White.

While the official award will be presented at the SC Bar Foundation Gala on March 11, 2010, Shannon Willis Scruggs of the SC Bar Foundation, and I delivered the good news to Ms. White today at the Greenville office of South Carolina Legal Services (SCLS). And wow, what a great feeling! To say that Ms. White was surprised would be an understatement. Below you’ll see some photos as we interrupted the Thursday morning staffing.

A little more about Ms. White:

  • She started work at SCLS in March 1997;
  • During her time at SCLS, she has conquered many legal issues including landlord/tenant, divorce, consumer and disability matters;
  • She is currently the lead bankruptcy attorney within the consumer unit of SCLS; and
  • She moved to South Carolina from Ohio where she had practiced for 12 years.

A few notes from the people who nominated her:

When she started at SCLS: Almost immediately, (no one can remember exactly when), she was fully oriented to the legal aid culture and was building a diverse caseload that has grown beyond all boundaries owing to her famous zeal at case acceptance meetings.

The justice system is better for her example, energy and abundant legal skill. Her humor enlivened every case acceptance meeting.

I could not be more impressed with her professionalism and cheerful work ethic – she is uniquely motivated in her desire to help others.

Maureen’s most significant achievement on a statewide level has been her work as our Lead Bankruptcy Attorney. When SCLS’ Bankruptcy Roadshow was created by the Consumer Unit, Maureen led the way as we went around the state training SCLS attorneys to handle bankruptcy cases. We significantly increased the number of attorneys handling bankruptcy and the number of clients being served by SCLS filing bankruptcy for them.

Meet Ms. Maureen White:

Once again – congratulations Maureen White!

And Ed McMahon – thanks for the inspiration . . . it’s a lot of fun to surprise people with flowers, balloons, and good news!

-RFW

Why did I become a lawyer?

Most of us begin to fashion a response  to the question when we’re asked “Why do YOU want to go to law school?” And if you’re surrounded by friends who are not in the legal profession, you may hear the follow-up “You’re such a nice person. Why do you want to change?”

I replied “I want to help people.” And you know what? Many attorneys in the public interest sector answered similarly.

You may not generally think of attorneys as helpful, but take a few moments to ponder “when do I or would I use an attorney?”

  • When a family member dies. Hopefully they’ve drafted a will, but either way, we often turn to an attorney to help us through the probate process.
  • When we go through a divorce. Sure there are divorce forms and packets available online (and in South Carolina, there are court-approved forms online), but when we think about it, isn’t it prudent to let someone who is not emotionally involved in our marriage take a look and advise us about the long-term effects of the dissolution?
  • When we buy or sell a house. This may not seem like an emotional time, but for many it is. This is one of the largest purchases (ok, probably the largest) we will ever make. We commit to this home for the next 30 years or so. Sounds like a good time to have an attorney research the title and make sure we’re paying for what is rightfully ours.
  • When we are accused of a crime. I know I want someone well-versed in criminal law to fight for my freedom.

In other words, we use the knowledge and services of attorneys when we have big events in our lives – either when something bad has happened or may happen. To help us.

And I became an attorney to do just that – help people.

-RFW

It’s Time. Time to Talk about UNBUNDLED Legal Services.

Unbundled Legal Services

aka Limited Scope Legal Representation

If you’ve been watching the news lately, you’ve noticed we appear to be in somewhat of a fiscal crisis. A meltdown. A mess. A recession.

Sure, sure. But what does that have to do with the law? Well, it seems that with this financial hiccup, this financial blip, this financial snarfle has profound impact on the daily lives of individuals. The impact results in loss of jobs, loss of homes, loss of medical insurance, loss of transportation, destroying marriages in its wake, affecting many.

Much of the loss involves court action – unemployment actions, foreclosure actions, bankruptcy and collection filings, divorce actions, etc. In the past many of these individuals would seek assistance from attorneys who are well-versed in the laws affecting their clients.

This is NOT occurring in this era of Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown and other DIY shows. Instead people are flocking into courtrooms themselves, without expert counsel. These individuals may be called Self-Represented Litigants (SRLs) or Pro Se Litigants or Pro Per Litigants. In this blog you’ve seen reference to SRLs.

Well, why is this worthy of a column?

  • Because unfortunately many of these individuals are heading into court thinking that they operate similarly to what has been shown on television and that is generally NOT how the court operates.
  • Because many are heading into court not understanding the consequences of the litigation.
  • Because many do not understand the court rules.
  • Because many do not know where to even FIND court rules.
  • Because attorneys have this knowledge and are not able to share their knowledge because of the perception of high costs.
  • Because this will lead to even more barriers to justice which will lead to greater perception that the courts only help people or companies with lots of money.

And that pains me. And it pains many of my attorney friends.

Sure, there’s always a greedy attorney joke out there. About an Ambulance chaser. About a Scheister/Shyster.

Go ahead. Tell the joke, even if it’s in your head. Laugh or chuckle a bit. Then come back to this blog.

Welcome back. Contrary to all you’ve read or heard, MOST, MOST, not all, but MOST attorneys enter the profession to help. It may be to help a specific person – maybe a family member. It may be to help a group of people. And, if you think about it, law and attorneys function precisely TO ASSIST.

Which leads to my attorney friends.

BIG DISCLAIMER: I AM AN ATTORNEY. MY HUSBAND IS ALSO AN ATTORNEY. MY COUSIN IS AN ATTORNEY. MY BROTHER HAS HIS LAW LICENSE.

I have many friends who are currently practicing law. Some are practicing in large firms. Others are solo practitioners. Yet others are government attorneys. And many of them work for non-profit legal service entities.

And we’re all talking. (ok, attorneys do love to talk) We’re all talking about the economy. We’re talking about most of us would not be able to afford to hire ourselves. This is where we all have the nervous giggle, no more of a titter.

It’s true. That’s why I say, it’s time to seriously consider UNBUNDLED LEGAL SERVICESThe term refers to a broad range of discrete tasks that an attorney might undertake such as: advice, negotiation, document review, document preparation and limited representation.

This will not abate the current fiscal crisis, but it may help people as they enter the civil legal system. Any other ideas? Anyone?

-RFW

To read about Unbundled Legal Service in Canada recently in the news, click here.