A key tenet of American democracy is a due process under the law. As U.S. citizens, our “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness” cannot be arbitrarily denied. We should rely on the protection and access to justice afforded by the rule of law. While criminal defendants have a legal right to counsel, no equivalent legal requirement exists for those pursuing civil claims. Without pro bono services, legal services provided for free or at a considerably lower rate, many low-income claimants are forced to navigate the court system with its complicated rules of procedures, forms, deadlines, and more, alone. Lack of access to justice impacts the lives of the poor and undermines the essential foundations of a democratic society.
In 2009, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service began distinguishing October as National Pro Bono Celebration Month. The committee recognized a significant increase in the need for pro bono legal services following the Great Recession. For a decade, each October, the legal profession celebrates volunteer lawyers who help bridge the gap between low-income clients and the justice system. The celebration is also a time to reflect on the ever-growing need for additional pro bono services.
In Alabama, where Beasley Allen is headquartered, nearly half of low-income households face one or more legal problems in a year, but a survey by the Alabama Access to Justice Commission revealed that the amount of available legal assistance addressed only 16 percent of those legal problems. The all-volunteer group is tasked with studying and improving the state’s access to justice problem. According to a report the group submitted to the Alabama Supreme Court, Legal Services Alabama (LSA), and five pro bono programs across the state provide a bulk of the services.
Earlier this month, and in celebration of Pro Bono Month, the Alabama Civil Justice Foundation (ACJF) awarded six grants to pro bono programs across the state totaling $1.63 million. Alabama’s legal community created the ACJF as charitable philanthropy to help remove barriers to a civil and just society for Alabama families and children.
“These grants are focused on stabilizing low-income communities and/or targeted vulnerable community groups,” according to Josh Hayes, ACJF president. “ACJF believes those selected will be far-reaching with lasting impact.”
The recipient organizations included Birmingham AIDS Outreach, Alabama State Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program, Volunteer Lawyers Birmingham, Legal Services Alabama, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, and Equal Justice Works. The funds were donated to support the organizations. They create innovative programs to tackle some of the most difficult civil legal aid issues in our state and will be distributed over the next two to three years. The money was part of the $3.6 million in settlement funds received by ACJF from the Department of Justice and Bank of America following the 2008 financial crisis.