Laurence Tribe, who is leading the Obama administration’s effort to enhance access to justice for poor and middle-class Americans, announced several initiatives this morning that are designed to increase the number of individuals who have access to a lawyer when facing complex legal problems. The initiatives target Americans seeking unpaid wages or overtime, veterans needing legal advice and people who are facing foreclosures on their homes.
Tribe, who is on leave as a professor at Harvard Law School to serve as senior counselor for the Access to Justice Initiative at the Department of Justice, said the initiatives were designed to help “close the access to justice gap” that he said has widened during the recent period of economic turmoil.
“We’re under no illusion that these steps are going to transform the national landscape,” Tribe said. “But we see them as helping to close a gap that has grown into a chasm.” Tribe said today that he will be stepping down from DOJ and returning to Harvard next month.
The announcements, billed as a Middle Class Task Force event and held in the White House's Eisenhower Executive Office Building, featured some of the administration’s top lawyers and officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, among others.
Among the initiatives that were announced at the event was a toll-free number for workers seeking to resolve complaints received by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division, such as not getting paid the minimum wage, not being paid overtime or being denied family medical leave.
Starting on Dec. 13, complainants whose cases cannot be resolved by DOL will be referred to the toll-free number, which will connect them with an American Bar Association attorney referral service to see if there is a lawyer nearby that can provide counsel. If DOL has conducted an investigation, the complainant will be given information about the findings to provide to an attorney who may take their case.
That program comes as a result of a collaboration of the DOL and the ABA.
Biden said that most of the referrals to private-sector attorneys will be paid for on a contingent basis, allowing poor and middle-class Americans to have access to lawyers they might not otherwise be able to afford.
“This is a common-sense approach to help average Americans that can’t afford legal representation and simply aren’t getting a fair shake,” Biden said. Solis added, “Today’s announced collaboration with the American Bar Association streamlines worker access to additional legal resources and builds on the Department of Labor’s continued efforts to ensure that employers comply with America’s labor laws.”
William ”Bill” Robinson III, president-elect of the ABA, said that the toll-free number service will take advantage of existing local lawyer-referral programs to put complainants in touch with lawyers near their home.
The second initiative announced at the event was a partnership between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Legal Services Corp. that is designed to let veterans know about LSC providers in their area who may be able to advise them on a range of legal issues, including foreclosure, consumer fraud, and employment issues. To aid in the awareness raising effort, LSC has launched a new Web site, http://www.StatesideLegal.org, to help veterans access information online.
John Levi, chairman of LSC’s board and a Sidley Austin partner, said the site was developed to explain legal and military terms in a straightforward way, and includes videos and interactive forms to help veterans advocate for themselves. Information on the Web site covers such topics as disability benefits, employment and legal protections for service members confronted with foreclosure actions. He said that although the Web site has received no publicity before today’s event, even though it has been online since June, it has already been visited more than 35,000 times.
“It just shows how great the need is for a national Web site that can serve as a clearing house for all of the programs that are available to veterans needing legal counsel,” Levi said. Joining Levi in making the announcement about the Web site was Will Gunn, general counsel for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The final announcement at the event related to the ongoing foreclosure crisis. Tribe said that his agency has been working with local foreclosure mediation programs to promote their use and to find best practices so programs can be launched in new areas. He said that foreclosure mediations are a good way for ailing families to find ways to avoid losing their homes when they face financial hardships.
To further that goal, DOJ’s Access to Justice Initiative and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a joint report identifying strategies for effective foreclosure mediation programs, such as well-trained housing counselors and pro bono attorneys who can counsel and support homeowners throughout the mediation process. To assist jurisdictions that are developing or expanding mediation programs, the report describes several features that have a positive impact on program effectiveness. The report also lists existing foreclosure mediation programs that are interested in sharing their experiences with other program stakeholders throughout the country.
Additionally, HUD announced a new training webinar that will highlight strategies and resources for avoiding foreclosures.
Helen Kanovsky, general counsel for HUD, said, “Successful foreclosure mediation programs help to stabilize and improve communities as well as the families facing financial hardship.”
Further, Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, announced that his agency has implemented a new rule that is designed to do away with fraudulent mortgage rescue companies that charge homeowners in advance to do virtually nothing in helping them to avoid foreclosure. Leibowitz said his agency is also stepping up enforcement efforts against fraudulent mortgage rescue companies, including slapping them with stiff penalties.
“We’re working to ensure that we stop these things from happening before they begin,” Leibowitz said.
In his closing remarks at the event, Holder said, “As a prosecutor and former judge, I know that the fundamental integrity of our criminal justice system, and our faith in it, depends on effective representation on both sides of the courtroom. And I am proud that, for the first time in its history, the Department of Justice has an office dedicated exclusively to increasing access to justice for all Americans – regardless of income or circumstance.”