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Legal Times News Editor Brendan Smith met with Georgetown University Law Center professor Peter Edelman on Oct. 5 to discuss his work as chairman of the D.C. Access to Justice Commission, which was created last year by the D.C. Court of Appeals to help increase resources for civil legal aid services. LT: What’s your view of the overall landscape of legal aid services in Washington? Edelman: It’s paradoxical, because I think this is a city with a great deal of commitment among the private bar and some absolutely outstanding people who do this work full time. The problem is that when you add up all of the wonderful people and the excellent efforts that they make, it’s just incredibly inadequate in relation to the size of the problem.The D.C. Bar Foundation did a study in 2003 where they estimated that we’re meeting only 10 percent of the need. This is a city that has a disproportionate number of low-income people. The gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in our city is the largest of any city in the country. People just don’t know what to do when they have a legal problem, and poor people have a lot of legal problems. LT: How will the D.C. Council’s recent $3.2 million appropriation for legal aid services be used? Edelman: We’re very pleased with the outcome and particularly grateful to the leadership of Kathy Patterson on the D.C. Council for making it happen. This will enable legal aid providers in the city to hire 25 to 30 more lawyers to work in communities, particularly on housing issues. That will be a 25 to 35 percent increase in the number of lawyers who are working full time on behalf of low-income people. It’s a tremendous achievement. The money is appropriated to the D.C. Bar Foundation, and they will put out a request for proposals, and then their board will decide how to distribute the money.The money is specifically for three purposes. One is for underserved communities and groups in the city. The second, the lead priority, is housing, which is such a difficult problem here. Almost none of the 49,000 defendants who come into Landlord Tenant Court every year have a lawyer. It’s really shocking. The third area that will be covered by some of the funding is language, the interpretation and translation services for people who come to a lawyer’s office and can’t communicate sufficiently in English. LT: On the housing issue, do you think gentrification is exacerbating that problem as far as the availability of affordable housing? Edelman: Gentrification is a serious problem here in Washington, as it is in many cities. Poor people are being forced out of the city at an alarming rate. Even people who own their own homes find that they can’t afford to pay property taxes that have shot up as a consequence. So it’s a huge problem. We have an ever-increasing shortage of housing that’s affordable to low- and moderate-income people.With rents going up as significantly as they are, the rate of eviction is going up as well, whether it’s because a landlord wants the whole building in order to convert it into condos or an individual person who can’t pay a rent that has gone up by two, three [or] four hundred dollars a month. We have a crisis.Now, there are some very big and complicated issues about supply, and we need to do more as a city to protect people from being evicted. We need equitable development policies to try to help retain a mixed income quality in neighborhoods. This question of having more lawyers to work on housing problems is certainly part of what we need to do, and it will help substantially. LT: The current legal service providers tend to focus on a certain population or certain types of cases. What do you think that the commission can do to provide a more unified structure? Edelman: In terms of the system, the commission is working on the question of intake. That’s a very high priority for us, and we’ve had discussions going on now for the better part of a year about how we can make the system more accessible. When someone comes to a particular office or to an intake [center] that is being conducted on a decentralized basis, how can we make it more certain that they’ll get to somebody who will represent them?We probably need an investment in laptops for lawyers who are remotely located and different types of software. We probably need a more sophisticated hot line than what we’ve had that’s well publicized and that has the technology to connect people by the touch of a button to someone who can both answer questions to give some brief advice or, if representation is needed, to get people to someone that can take the case. LT: What areas of law do you think are undercovered or not covered at all by legal aid services? Edelman: The D.C. Bar study identified housing and public benefits and family issues as being a very acute shortage. There is an almost complete dearth of probate services for low-income people. Also, in the consumer area there is a huge gap. LT: As far as the salaries that legal aid attorneys make, what can be done to retain them, given their low salaries? Edelman: A piece of this money is for a new loan-repayment assistance program for lawyers who work in the District on civil representation. That, in effect, is a salary increase. It means that for a significant number of lawyers in the District, they can get a contribution of public money to pay back the loans. We contemplate that the salary structure of the new lawyers will be a little better than what is now being paid to try to push toward raising the salary of the other lawyers. If you made some big gap, you’d create a serious problem. We hope we can use this new infusion of money to push the market a little bit. LT: What is the commission doing to increase pro bono services from law firms? Edelman: The bar did an initiative to reach the top 50 law firms in the city and to urge them to take the pro bono pledge that the Pro Bono Institute has nationally. We started an initiative to reach out to the second 50 law firms. In general, we plan to work over the next year or two on trying to increase the pro bono commitment. We’re going to try to use some of the public money and will encourage the people who apply for it to use some of the money to leverage greater pro bono commitment.Both in terms of the contribution of time and the contribution of money, it’s definitely part of our agenda to balance out the public funds with pushing for an increase in the private-party effort. The effort of the commission is to get more money into the system, and that’s not only the public money but also private contributions. One of the great things about this commission is that it brings around one table the bench and the bar leaders and the providers and some other civic leaders. LT: How can the commission help bridge the income-disparity gap by providing legal aid services? Edelman: I think the larger goal is to play a larger role in helping the city do more to reduce poverty. It’s a big job. It starts for us with the question of legal representation, and then we’ll try to build out. We’d like to make a contribution to people having better access to the political process to help people in lower-income neighborhoods to have a more effective voice with the mayor and the City Council. LT: Should legal aid providers tackle more issues of systemic reform? Edelman: Yes, I think those are probably areas that will develop with private money. It is certainly true that in the past that legal services lawyers were able to do more systemic work. The ability to do that by way of litigation has changed over the past 25 years, and the courts are not as responsive, but systemic work can also be policy advocacy in the rest of government�in the legislative and executive branches. I think as our legal community develops here, we would like to be the catalyst for improving the ability of people to advocate for better policy that relates to poverty. LT: Have you seen any changes anticipated yet for Georgetown’s legal clinics in relation to the work the commission is doing? Edelman: I think it would be marvelous to get law students more deeply involved in our local community and on these issues of people with the greatest need. I think law students would respond, whether through a clinic or volunteering in various ways. LT: Anything else you want to add? Edelman: We were pleasantly surprised by how much we were able to accomplish in just over a year’s time. The law firms have been very, very generous in supporting the work of the commission. There are about 15 to 20 law firms who have donated funds to support the work of commission. For a relatively modest investment, the return, so far, is very tangible.
Brendan Smith can be contacted at [email protected].

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