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Bar News - August 17, 2012


Pro Bono Volunteers: Crucial Threads in Safety Net

NH lawyers, in partnership with the NHBA Pro Bono Referral Program, have strived heroically to help desperate and vulnerable low-income people with civil legal problems, advising or representing 2,380 clients in the fiscal year ending June 1, 2012. Counting an average of 2.25 people per household, that meant that Pro Bono attorneys had an impact on approximately 5,200 family members throughout all 10 counties of NH.

That is an accomplishment and a tribute to the giving spirit of the more than 1,000 private attorneys who are active Pro Bono volunteers. However, those efforts only go so far, given the enormous unmet legal needs that exist.

Pro Bono works in concert with the staff-model civil legal services agencies, NH Legal Assistance, and the Legal Advice & Referral Center, yet even their combined efforts make only a small dent in the number of low-income citizens who need help with civil legal problems. (A comprehensive legal needs study, funded by the NH Bar Foundation, will be released in October. The study will document the shocking gap between legal resources and unmet needs. Data on the potential economic impact to the state of improving access to justice will be provided along with the study’s release.)

Types of Cases Referred – FY 2012
Bankruptcy, debt collection/other consumer matters 488
Family law 865
Domestic violence 257
Landlord/tenant/housing issues 254
Wills & estates 117
Low-income taxpayer cases 187
Other including benefits, wages, torts, special education 212
Total ongoing and new in FY 2012
 
2,380
 
In reports of their activities to the NH Bar Foundation’s IOLTA program, the three organizations all report that operations have been affected by major funding cuts from federal and state sources as well as the diminishing returns on IOLTA due to low interest rates and the sluggish economy. The Bar’s legal services programs, Pro Bono and the Reduced-Fee Referral program – which helps people of modest means find attorneys – are funded by a multitude of sources including the NH Bar Foundation’s IOLTA, federal Legal Services Corporation through a subgrant (the amount has been halved since the early 1990s), the United Ways and some other grants. Pro Bono also raises funds with the Quid Pro Bono golf tournament and the Campaign for Legal Services, the joint fundraising effort of Pro Bono, NHLA and LARC. Dedicated funding for the Low-Income Taxpayer Project comes from the Internal Revenue Service. DOVE – the Domestic Violence Emergency Project – is supported largely by federal Violence Against Women Act funding.

The Pro Bono Referral Program of the Bar Association supports the volunteers by screening cases, recruiting and training attorneys, providing mentoring when necessary, coordinating support such as interpreters, and paying for some litigation expenses. Pro Bono also in recent years has created new delivery models including clinics where clients are signed up to come to the Bar Center at a scheduled time and Pro Bono attorneys are spared the burden of back-and-forth communication to set up meetings. Especially in the bankruptcy area, which now accounts for about 20 percent of the caseload, Pro Bono staff attempt to ensure that clients have the necessary information and paperwork gathered before meeting with an attorney.

October is Pro Bono Month

Every day, NH Bar members provide a helping hand to the less fortunate through the Bar’s Pro Bono Referral Program. The Bar Association is dedicating the entire month of October to celebrating and supporting the Pro Bono program.

The hand-print logo depicted here is part of our support and recognition effort, "High-Five for Pro Bono." For selected NHBA events and services in October, $5 of each fee will be directed to Pro Bono.

In addition, a volunteer recognition event is in the works during the month of October, and the Bar Association is coordinating with the UNH School of Law on promoting public service activity by law students, honoring the memory of the late Bruce Friedman, legal clinic director for Pierce Law Center in the 1980s and early 1990s, whose dedication to access to justice has left an enduring legacy.

Last year, the Pro Bono Referral Program estimated that more than 18,000 hours of time were contributed by Bar members on cases referred through the program. It is a difficult number to estimate, given that help is provided in many forms, from telephone calls to face-to-face meetings, court appearances, as well as the hours of support contributed by attorneys who cannot provide direct representation – including staffing referral marathons, case reviews, and other services. Also, some Pro Bono assistance amounts to brief intervention such as the preparation of a bankruptcy petition, while some cases have resulted in hundreds of hours contributed by several attorneys.

While the Pro Bono Program asks attorneys to report on case outcomes, consistent information from a volunteer-driven program is difficult to obtain. However, the Pro Bono Program has identified that in a number of cases attorneys are able to produce beneficial results for their clients, in terms of renegotiated or deferred foreclosures, or child support awards that will improve economic conditions for families.

In the next few months, the Bar Association will be making a special effort to shine a spotlight on the work of the Pro Bono Program – both the work by volunteers to assist their clients, and by the Pro Bono Program itself, in support of the volunteers.

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