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Working Groups Identify Recommendations to Improve Access to Legal Services

In 2021, the NC Equal Access to Justice Commission and NC Equal Justice Alliance released the 2020 Legal Needs Assessment, the first comprehensive assessment of civil legal needs in North Carolina in more than two decades. Completed with funding support from NC IOLTA, the executive summary and report documented with greater clarity the most significant legal needs and the biggest barriers facing individuals seeking legal help. The report has prompted deeper understanding of the needs of our fellow North Carolinians and has called on all to think collectively about how to respond. As Justice Anita Earls shared at the time of the report’s release, “[t]his is also an opportunity for the bench and bar to partner with all justice system stakeholders to ensure we are meeting the North Carolina Constitution’s guarantee that ‘justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay.’”

At NC IOLTA, we are continuing this conversation in 2022.

Civil legal aid has a critical role in building a legal system that works for everyone. With the information in hand from the 2020 Legal Needs Assessment, NC IOLTA and the NC Equal Access to Justice Commission surveyed legal aid provider organizations earlier this spring about opportunities to respond to the gaps identified in the Legal Needs Assessment. The Legal Needs Convening brought leaders from legal aid programs together to share challenges and successes and brainstorm about opportunities to address these needs as a community.

A few months later, NC IOLTA established four working groups to continue these conversations in the summer of 2022. We know that if we want to work toward equitable access to civil legal aid, we need to support a system that everyone can fairly navigate. The goal of the working groups was to identify specific strategies for the community to respond in the greatest areas of identified needs with the ultimate goal of improving the availability of and access to legal services. The four working groups included: (1) family law; (2) legal services for immigrant populations; (3) outreach and communications; and (4) coordinated intake. NC IOLTA grantees and stakeholders were asked to identify staff to participate in each of the working groups who could offer their subject matter expertise.

Summary of the Recommendations

I. Family Law

Family law was by far the greatest area of underserved need in research conducted for the Legal Needs Assessment, with divorce, domestic violence, and custody being the second, fourth, and sixth most prevalent civil legal case types filed each year. Family-related cases account for 30% of total case volume. While some of the legal aid programs provide family law services, the length of cases and high demand makes providing extended representation difficult. The Family Law Working Group recommended:

 (1) improving available pro se resources for family law issues (for example pro se packets, county-specific information, written legal information, and brief services) and developing best practices for expanding and maintaining the resources;

(2) exploring opportunities for the expansion and promotion of unbundled family law services;

(3) developing a central repository of resources around family law issues; and

(4) coordinating with court staff to partner around use and improvement of court-supported resources.

II. Legal Services for Immigrant Populations

The second most cited underserved practice area in the Legal Needs Assessment was immigration, in addition to other areas of civil legal need for immigrant populations including consumer issues, landlord/tenant issues, and workers’ rights. The barriers impacting expanded access include restrictions on funding, changing federal laws, processing delays, and language and literacy challenges. The Legal Services for Immigrant Populations Working Group recommended the following:

(1) developing a formal space for coordination among legal services providers serving this population to support better coordination, referral, and community strategy;

(2) expanding legal resources for immigrant populations including pro se resources, limited services, and pro bono opportunities;

(3) analyzing legal needs of the population further; and

(4) supporting staff recruitment and retention.

III. Outreach and Communications

In addition to cost, documented barriers that prevent access to legal services include transportation, distance from a legal aid office, lack of internet access, health issues, language and cultural literacy, trust, and lack of awareness, both about legal needs being experienced and available services to meet those needs. The Outreach and Communications Working Group recommended the following:

(1) developing a repository of resources to support organizations’ individual outreach and communications work, including templates, suggested vendors, calendars, and best practices; and

(2) pursuing cross-organization collaboration in communications efforts, for example, through shared training, collaborative resource fairs for clients, joint communications efforts around common goals, and gatherings or trainings for social services providers to build relationships with legal aid organizations and better understand their work.

IV. Coordinated Intake

The Legal Needs Assessment documented concerns about the ability of potential clients to access available services, including long wait times on the phone hotline, confusing phone menus, and waits to get a call back. Challenges to better access include capacity and resources, literacy and technological capabilities of callers, and willingness and ability of callers to answer return calls. The Coordinated Intake Working Group recommended the following:

(1) developing coordinated referral systems for programs to refer cases with clear protocols, understanding of available capacity, and policies for efficient and effective transfer of information that address confidentiality and other concerns;

(2) identifying and pursuing a pilot to centrally triage cases for a particular area to test and learn from a coordinated statewide intake system;

(3) coordinating support for intake staff; and

(4) establishing clear protocols for sharing information periodically to better identify trends and needs and support the ability to respond.

The full set of recommendations can be found on NC IOLTA’s website at ncbar.gov/media/730714/legal-needs-assessment.pdf. 

Additional Updates

NC IOLTA Leadership Update. Maria Missé of Ahoskie completed six years of service on the NC IOLTA Board of Trustees on August 30, 2022. The board recognized Maria’s service with a resolution of appreciation at the August board retreat.

At the July State Bar Council meeting, Alexander C. Dale (Alex) of Wilmington was appointed to serve for a term of three years beginning September 1, 2022. The council appointed new board leadership as well—Shelby Duffy Benton of Goldsboro was appointed to a one-year term as chair and Heather W. Culp of Charlotte was appointed to a one-year term as vice-chair.

IOLTA Revenue. While monthly revenue from participant income in the first half of 2022 was slightly depressed compared to 2021—a decrease of about 4%—current monthly income has increased significantly do to increases in the Federal Funds Target Rate (FFTR) and positive adjustments being made by many financial institutions in their interest rates paid on IOLTA accounts. Income from January through August 2022 totaled $3.9 million.

2023 Grantmaking. Requests for 2023 funding from NC IOLTA were due on September 23. Thirty seven applications totaling $7.83 million were submitted. Staff are reviewing applications and meeting with applicants to collect additional information prior to the board’s review of applications later this year. 2023 awards will be finalized and announced in mid-December.

State Funds. NC IOLTA administers state funding on behalf of the NC State Bar. Under the Domestic Violence Victim Assistance Act, a portion of fees assessed in civil and criminal court actions support legal assistance for domestic violence victims provided by Legal Aid of North Carolina and Pisgah Legal Services. In the first quarter of the 2022-23 state year, NC IOLTA has administered $215,241 in domestic violence state funds. An additional $100,000 in state funding in 2022-23 was directed to Pisgah Legal Services in the state budget for their veteran’s legal services program.

Don’t forget to certify! Each year, as part of the annual dues process, all State Bar members are required to make a certification regarding IOLTA status. This simple question asks you to confirm if you do or do not hold funds on behalf of North Carolina clients. Whether you complete the dues process online through the Member Portal or print a form and mail it in, don’t forget to complete this step. As a reminder, separate from the mandatory annual certification, all attorneys should inform NC IOLTA any time your IOLTA status changes, that is, if you change employment or open or close a trust account.