The Public Welfare Foundation, which supports Access to Justice initiatives throughout the U.S. (including us!), highlights the importance of a broad, inclusive ATJ community in reaching our shared equal justice goals. This is especially true during these trying fiscal times, when the two largest sources of legal aid funding – Legal Services Corporation grants and Interest on Lawyers Trust Account (IOLTA) proceeds – have dwindled:
Since 2011, the Public Welfare Foundation has supported a special initiative on civil legal aid, investing a total of nearly $4 million to date. The Kresge Foundation has partnered with Public Welfare on several grants, and both foundations have tried to spur broader philanthropic investment in civil legal aid. [Ed. note: check out Public Welfare's "Natural Allies" pamphlet to educate foundation funders about legal aid's importance.]
Among the most important pieces of the civil legal aid infrastructure are state-based Access to Justice Commissions, which bring together many stakeholders, including the bar, courts, legal aid providers, law schools, and other justice system participants, as well as new partners in health care, business and other fields. The most effective commissions have been able to mobilize creative and energetic leaders who have credibility and connections within the legal community and beyond in order to raise the visibility of access-to-justice issues, develop approaches to address them, and successfully implement their plans.
With help from Public Welfare and Kresge, the total number of active commissions increased from 26 in early 2012 to 34 as of August, 2014 – with at least two more coming on board by the end of 2014. Commissions have also undertaken innovative models that have been funded in 14 states.
Several such states have been able to reach out to more people with civil legal aid issues through creative online programs. For example, North Carolina’s ATJ commission recently launched a website with state-specific legal resources and referral information that helps link veterans – a vulnerable population that often needs help obtaining benefits – to pro bono attorneys who specialize in representing them.
Clearly, a key component of expanding effective model programs is to share information nationwide – to the legal aid community, to consumers of legal aid, and to the public at large. To that end, four foundations to date – Public Welfare, Kresge, JPB and Ford – have pooled resources in support of a newly launched communications hub, called Voices for Civil Justice.
The more broadly information can be circulated about civil legal aid, the better its value can be understood. In turn, the more public and private funding that can be generated, the more likely that the gap between supply and demand can be eliminated.
Here’s Public Welfare Foundation Prsident Mary McClymont on civil legal aid’s importance: