Grantee Spotlight - Equal Access to Justice Community
In the largest sense, the entire bar (that’s a small "b") is the equal access to justice community. We make that commitment in the Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct: "The legal profession is a group of people united in a learned calling for the public good. At their best, lawyers assure the availability of legal services to all, regardless of ability to pay..."
However, as approximately two million North Carolinians qualify for legal aid assistance (including 34% of all children and 18% of seniors), we go on to acknowledge that while "the provision of free legal services to those unable to pay reasonable fees continues to be an obligation of each lawyer as well as the profession generally,…the efforts of individual lawyers are often not enough to meet the need. Thus, the profession and government instituted additional programs to provide legal services. Accordingly, legal aid offices, lawyer referral services, and other related programs were developed by the profession and the government. Every lawyer should support all proper efforts to meet this need for legal services."
NC IOLTA is among those programs—established to support legal aid for the poor. It is the non-profit program created by the NC State Bar and approved by order of the NC Supreme Court to collect net interest income generated from participating lawyers' pooled trust accounts and use those funds to make grants for programs that provide civil legal service to the poor or otherwise work to improve the administration of justice.
NC IOLTA's Civil Legal Assistance for the Indigent grant program provides general support for a network of organizations that together provide basic access to the justice system for low income people residing in every county in North Carolina.
IOLTA as Grantor
As in other jurisdictions, North Carolina's IOLTA program is an integral part of the legal aid community that includes its grantees. As a grantor, we review materials throughout the grant year, from grant applications and agreements through external audits and regular objective reports on the use of funds and case statistics. Grant decisions are made annually by the NC IOLTA Board of Trustees, which administers the program according to the rules adopted by the NC State Bar Council and approved by the NC Supreme Court.
The nine-member board is appointed by the NC State Bar Council for a term of three years, with eligibility to serve two terms. Great care is taken to ensure diversity of the board, not only for race and gender, but also by weighing factors such as geographic location, type of legal or financial institution experience, firm size, and bar leadership.
IOLTA trustees review all grant applications annually and receive written reports and presentations on grantee activities at IOLTA board meetings. In addition, I as IOLTA director spend time with staff of the grantee programs, including not only the directors, but also attorneys and staff responsible for compliance, accounting, data management, etc. Such knowledge of the staff allows me to address queries about reports and programs appropriately and efficiently. I also attend board meetings of these non-profit law firms, which allows me to gauge the level of involvement of their board members and whether there is true board governance. Acquiring documents such as bylaw revisions, audits, and strategic plans at the board meetings enables me to hear the staff explain the issues and gauge board interest and understanding. (Such visits to board meetings are a response to the concern expressed at a recent NC Network of Grantmakers workshop on grantee site visits that board governance can be the hardest thing to evaluate.) Of course, many IOLTA trustees also have close knowledge of the grantees from seeing their work in their own communities and/or having served on their boards or as pro bono attorneys for the programs.
IOLTA Supports and Engages in Collaborative Efforts
Our relationship with our grantees also includes involvement with collaborative efforts. NC IOLTA provided important support in establishing, and still participates in, the Equal Justice Alliance (formerly known as the Legal Services Planning Council), a voluntary association of civil legal aid provider organizations; and the Equal Access to Justice Commission, a group of representatives from the judiciary, state government, business and foundation community, as well as other stakeholders in the improvement of legal aid, chaired by the chief justice of the NC Supreme Court.
Equal Justice Alliance—In 1999 the legal aid organizations came together to form a network to ensure access to justice for low income North Carolinians, and continues to work together with alliance members and other organizations to that end. For three years IOLTA financially supported the alliance, during which the members decided to pay member dues so that IOLTA funds could be used for more direct legal services. The Alliance's mission is coordination of a sustained, comprehensive, integrated, statewide system to provide the most effective legal services to people in poverty in North Carolina. It is guided by the vision of a system that provides a full range of services to a wide range of clients.
The Foreclosure Project is a good example of this work. The alliance's legal assistance providers, along with the Financial Protection Law Center and the NC Housing Coalition, sought and received funding to assist low-income North Carolinians facing foreclosure. Together, these efforts under the auspices of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and the state, originally through the NC Office of the Commissioner of Banks, have extended protection to hundreds of imperiled individuals; increased organizational collaborative consultation, outreach, and service; and supported funding diversification.
These organizations work together to make improvements, including most recently working to make consistent the computer codes used for case reporting so that outcomes can be designed and consistently reported. Outcomes are the desired reporting standard for many foundations, and the state of North Carolina is moving towards having grantees use outcome measurements. The next step is to work with the Center for Poverty, Work, and Opportunity at UNC to use the outcome data to develop reports on the economic benefits to the state of North Carolina from the work of the legal aid programs.
Equal Access to Justice Commission—In November 2005, shortly before his retirement from the bench, Chief Justice Lake, by order of the state supreme court, established the NC Equal Access to Justice Commission—the 19th state to establish a formal state-level body devoted to this issue. The commission is now ably led by current Chief Justice Sarah Parker, who noted in its first report, "The peaceful resolution of civil disputes is essential to the preservation of ordered liberty in a democratic society…our citizens lose confidence in the process when meaningful access to the forum for resolution of disputes is denied to a significant segment of our population."
For three years, IOLTA made a grant to pay for the services of an executive director to serve both the alliance and the commission. We were fortunate to be able to hire a director, Jennifer Lechner, who is already nationally known from doing this work in another state. In 2009 the State Bar began providing funding to this commission through CLE sponsorship fees as it does with the Professionalism Commission.
It is the mission of the North Carolina Equal Access to Justice Commission to expand access to the civil justice system for people of low income and modest means in North Carolina. The commission brings together bar leaders, the judiciary, legal aid providers, legislators, business leaders, client representatives, law schools, community agencies, and foundations to address the lack of access to the civil justice system for the poor in a variety of ways, such as educating the public about the realities of poverty and barriers to access to the civil justice system; increasing pro bono representation; providing guidelines and assistance to those representing themselves in the courts pro se; providing more support for legal aid attorneys, including through law school debt reduction; and improving access to the courts for those with limited English proficiency.
Over the past several years the commission has established a website, ncaccesstojustice.org, for educational purposes, and where individuals can donate pro bono service and/or money to legal aid. It has published a manual, Cy Pres & Other Court Awards, as a reference for North Carolina attorneys & judges in directing such awards to legal aid. It has established and oversees a collaborative annual law firm fundraising campaign and organizes the education campaign for members of the General Assembly. The commission has also provided important support for the rule revisions providing for pro bono emeritus (allowing retired, inactive lawyers to do pro bono work for legal aid organizations); Rule 6.1 that provides an aspirational goal of 50 hours of pro bono service annually; and moving NC IOLTA to a mandatory program that requires comparability of interest rates on trust accounts.
The fact that so many North Carolina leaders are committed to this effort is an indication of its importance to our state. As Tom Lambeth, former director of the Z Smith Reynolds Foundation, stated at the Equal Access to Justice Summit in October 2007, "The ABA in its mandate to the Task Force on Access to Civil Justice uses language that captures your challenge…[i]t mentions 'problems that can imprison one in poverty or discrimination.' That is, of course, the reality with which you—we—must deal. That denial of access to civil justice imprisons those denied in a situation that prevents them from being all that they might be. It prevents them from contributing all that they might contribute to the common good. Yet they are not the only prisoners when such a condition prevails. All of the community in which they live is to some extent imprisoned. We are all denied the benefits that would come from a society in which equality of access and opportunity prevail ... So, if you do not believe in equal access to justice as a matter of common humanity, believe in it as essential to economic development."
What is Civil Legal Aid?
- Civil legal aid programs provide free legal services to low-income people in non-criminal cases where clients may face the loss of their home, family, livelihood, or personal safety; however, unlike in criminal cases, there is no constitutional right to counsel for parties in civil cases.
- Legal aid providers are independent nonprofits that receive a mix of public and private funds.
The NC Constitution provides that: "All courts shall be open; every person for an injury done him in his lands, goods, person, or reputation shall have remedy by due course of law; and right and justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay." Sec. 18. Court shall be open.
Legal aid providers assist in providing this core government function by:
- Helping victims of domestic violence escape abuse;
- Fighting predatory consumer practices and scams;
- Preserving homes and improving housing conditions;
- Protecting and improving household income for families and seniors;
- Establishing eligibility for access to medical care and coverage in federal programs; and
- Recruiting and training lawyers in private practice to donate their time, money, and services in order to increase access and to reduce costs.
Legal Aid Providers Do Not:
- Provide representation in criminal matters;
- Provide representation in personal injury, medical malpractice, or other tort cases.
Legal Aid Providers Do:
- Resolve more than 80% of their cases outside of court;
- Litigate only the most meritorious cases—when they do go to court, they win 90% of their cases; and
- Bring millions of dollars to North Carolina to ameliorate the ravages of poverty.
How is legal aid funded?
- Federal funding
- State funding
- Local government funding
- NC IOLTA
- United Way/Foundations
- Individuals and Law Firms
Visit ncaccesstojustice.com for more information on how to help:
- Provide pro bono representation (meeting Rule 6.1 obligation); or
- Donate money to legal aid.