A year after a Pro Bono Summit was held to drum up solutions for the rapidly growing need for legal help in the state, a new report by a commission created by the state Judicial Branch shows the need is still there.
For years, state Chief Justice Chase T. Rogers has lamented that the judicial system is straining under the weight of people who are representing themselves in court, especially in divorce and child custody cases and in housing matters, such as evictions and other landlord-tenant disputes.
Among those trying to address the issue is the the Access To Justice Commission, led by Superior Court Judge Raymond R. Norko. Last week, the commission’s first annual report was released with a number of recommendations aimed at easing the pro se bottleneck. One effort being studied is to rewrite legal forms used in family court, which would help pro ses navigate the system with less difficulty.
Another priority is to push for a Practice Book rule change that would let lawyers handle portions of cases instead of entire cases. Such partial representation is currently not allowed under state bar guidelines, Norko said.
The commission’s report, prepared after seven meetings over the past year, zeroed in on getting the rule changed to allow for limited scope representation, which would theoretically increase pro bono participation by attorneys and also reduce the number of people going to court without any professional assistance.
The initiative, recently endorsed by the Connecticut Bar Association’s Board of Governors, awaits consideration by the Rules Committee of the Superior Court.
Norko said the commission will continue to look for other ways to increase pro bono participation, which is seen as one of the best ways to reduce pro se cases. One consideration is a recent New York requirement that all new lawyers complete up to 50 hours of pro bono work before being licensed. “That’s something we’re going to put on for the next go around,” Norko said.
He’s asking commission members to look at pro bono recruitment from around the country and provide recommendations by January. “This commission is not done, it’s just beginning,” Norko said.
Steve Eppler-Epstein, executive director of Connecticut Legal Services, said the pending rule change to allow for limited representation offers exciting opportunities to the legal aid community, by increasing the number of attorneys who would be available to help people who earn too much to qualify for legal aid, but not the $200 or more per hour it often costs to hire a lawyer.
“It makes it a lot easier to give people of low income pro bono help, because it makes more lawyers available,” Eppler-Epstein said. “Let’s say someone is getting divorced and can’t afford a lawyer. There are only a handful of lawyers in the state who will take a divorce case from beginning to end for a low-income person; it’s a big commitment to do that. But with the rule change, there are a whole lot more people who will be able to take part in representing that person in the divorce.”
Eppler-Epstein said strides have been made in pro bono efforts at the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center in West Haven and at a Stamford Day Laborer Wage Clinic set up to help workers recover wrongfully withheld pay checks.
“There are about 350,000 low-income people in the state and [legal aid agencies] can only help about 10 percent of that group,” Eppler-Epstein said. “The more we can do to make it possible for people in private practice to help, the better off we’ll be.”
Last October, the state Judicial Branch held a Pro Bono Summit that drew 130 members of the bar and partners from large law firms that resulted in several new pro bono initiatives, said Superior Court Judge William H. Bright Jr., who chairs the Judicial Branch’s Pro Bono Committee.
The largest group of pro se litigants is in the family court area, so that has been where call for help has been loudest. Court officials say 85 percent of the more than 45,000 family law cases heard last year included at least one self-represented party.
Edward Heath, a partner at Robinson & Cole’s business litigation group, serves on Judge Bright’s committee. His firm was one of many that answered the call for help. Heath said two or three lawyers with his firm have been working in the Middletown courthouse each Monday, setting up a table to help people who are applying for domestic violence restraining orders, or seeking to have those orders kept in place.
About a dozen lawyers at Robinson & Cole have received training from Connecticut Legal Services and the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence to learn the relevant law. “We really wanted to respond to that need,” Heath said. “I’d like to see us expand that program to other courthouses.”
Over the next year, the priority for his firm’s pro bono program will be to continue working with veterans facing evictions or in need of benefits.
McCarter & English has been another leader in pro bono efforts, also directing resources in family court. One attorney at the firm has spent over 400 hours of free legal service on a complicated transnational custody battle in which one parent facing deportation want their child to stay with family. “We’re pushing to have every lawyer do at least 20 hours of pro bono work,” said Cathy Mohan, a partner at the firm and a member of Bright’s committee. “It’s a huge push.”
Following last year’s summit, Bright was contacted by the legal departments of several large companies that wanted to help. General Electric, United Technologies and Pfizer became involved in the response to pro bono needs. Additionally, new initiatives were launched in areas beyond family court, including a probate clinic by Cummings & Lockwood in lower Fairfield County.
“The needs are really all over the place,” Bright said, “so the approach that we’re taking is to say to the firms and legal departments, ‘Tell us what you’re interested in and we’ll find a place for that interest.’”
The goal of the last year’s summit was to reach out to larger firms, which is an approach that Bright feels has been successful. Over the next year, Bright said his committee will look to smaller firms by holding “mini-summits” throughout the state.
While his committee has discussed a new 50-hour pro bono requirement in New York, Bright would prefer to continue drumming up volunteers rather than conscripting them.
One approach, he said, is touting benefits to everyone in the legal community if pro bono efforts result in fewer pro se litigants. “Certainly when we have self-represented parties, it takes longer to get their matter resolved but also everyone else’s matters resolved, because they’re not familiar with the process,” Bright said. “It just slows down the administration of justice for everyone, including the people who are represented by counsel.”
Small Firm Focus
Moving forward, Bright said there are advantages to having more small firms participating. “There are a couple of advantages to asking small firms to help out. One is, they’re familiar with the [local courts] more often than lawyers from larger firms, so they know how things work. If we’re asking a lawyer who regularly appears on a family court docket to help out with one case, they will be able to do that in a very short period of time, because of that familiarity.”
Key areas of emphasis moving forward include help for tenants with security deposit complaints and day laborers whose pay has been withheld. Representation of veterans is a continuing need, with those cases being complicated by parties often needing mental health treatment.
To get an indicator of possible participation for future efforts, Bright said his committee conducted an online survey last year of lawyers as they completed their annual electronic registrations. Of the 80 percent of the attorneys who answered the question, he said, “the number who said they were doing pro bono was 10 to 15 percent.”
Bright qualified the statistic, pointing out that the question specifically asked about pro bono work for clients who could not afford an attorney, which he said excluded work with non-profit and legal aid agencies.
“We now have a baseline from which we can see how we’re progressing in the years to come,” Bright said. “I don’t know the answer now as to whether our efforts are being successful or if more people are participating in pro bono than a year ago. I hope that’s the case.”•