At DLA Piper’s 8th St. N.W. offices last night, the District of Columbia Access to Justice Commission unveiled its new report on the need for civil legal services among low-income District residents. D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, the chief judges of D.C. Superior Court and the D.C. Court of Appeals, and a number of the DLA lawyers who drafted the report pro bono were among the crowd gathered in the bright marble lobby.
The report examined nine areas of legal services: consumer, education, employment, estate planning, family, public benefits, health and disability, housing, and immigration. It focused specifically on civil legal issues, since unlike criminal cases, a person facing civil charges typically is not entitled to representation. By surveying legal services providers and community-based organizations, and collecting data from the D.C. courts and the Office of Administrative Hearings, the report found that the need for legal representation is much greater than the available help, and that the majority of low-income residents are unaware of their legal rights and don’t know when it’s appropriate to seek legal help.
Sara Moghadam, a litigation partner, helped lead the DLA team that put together the report. “It was a lot of man hours,” she says of the work that lawyers and summer associates put into the project. DLA is pro bono counsel to the Access to Justice Commission, and began working on the report in 2005. Moghadam says the point is to raise awareness about the lack of civil legal services available. “The idea is to get everybody in the community engaged.”
In his remarks last evening, chair of the commission Peter Edelman described the report as “a blue print” that lays out the problems that need to be addressed. Mayor Fenty told the crowd, “You have my commitment on behalf of the executive branch... We will do everything we can to make you proud of the tremendous amount of work that has gone into this.” Robert Spagnoletti, president of the D.C. Bar, remarked that part of the solution is more volunteer time from the 89,000 members of the D.C. Bar.
Now that the “blue print” is in place, Sunil Mansukhani, the commission's executive director, says the commission is developing benchmarks on financial giving that it will distribute to area law firms. He says that while the private sector has been generous, it can do more to help address the legal needs of low-income residents.
The Access to Justice Commission was created by the D.C. Court of Appeals in 2005. More information on the commission is available here.