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March 26, 2013

Philadelphia Bar Receives Grant From ABA Access to Justice Commission Expansion Project

The Philadelphia Bar Association announced on March 21 that it has received formal approval from the American Bar Association Fund for Justice and Education for a grant as part of the ABA’s Access to Justice Commission Expansion Project.

The grant application was submitted by Chancellor Kathleen D. Wilkinson on behalf of the Philadelphia Bar Association’s Civil Gideon and Access to Justice Task Force, with letters of support from Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, Pennsylvania IOLTA and the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network.

The funding will be used to support ongoing efforts to create a broad-based statewide coalition including the Pennsylvania Bar Association and other key stakeholders to work collaboratively on improving access to justice; to plan and conduct a series of statewide public hearings to generate greater public awareness and understanding of the civil justice gap crisis; to identify various solutions to close the justice gap; and to explore whether Pennsylvania should implement an Access to Justice Commission.

“We are delighted that the Pennsylvania Bar Association and other key stakeholders will partner with us on this very important work, in order to explore strategies to improve access to justice, the issue of civil Gideon and the civil justice gap,” said Wilkinson “Chief Justice Castille has been very supportive of this vital work. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is expected to play a key role in this project, including providing testimony during the statewide hearings that will be planned by the legislative branch."

“The ABA grant is an important first step in the collaboration of our Task Force with the Pennsylvania Bar Association and many others to launch a series of statewide hearings on the need for counsel for low-income individuals in adversarial proceedings where fundamental needs, such as housing and a parent’s access to children, are at stake,” said Joseph A. Sullivan, co-chair of the Civil Gideon and Access to Justice Task Force. “The goals of the hearings, to be chaired by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf and the Senate Judiciary Committee, include learning much more about the difficulties many face in achieving access to justice, and hearing a broad range of perspectives on the consequences of the inability to retain counsel on families, such as loss of jobs, breakdown in family integrity and economic disruption. Our goals also include learning more about the broader impact of lack of counsel on communities and economies – both locally and statewide. We hope to educate the broadest possible audience about these issues, and the benefits of expanding access to justice to everyone in the community,” he said.

“As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Gideon decision, we are thrilled to have this support to move forward a statewide effort to build access to justice for all on the civil side,” added Task Force Co-Chair Catherine C. Carr.

The formation of the statewide coalition will be completed in the coming weeks and a series of strategic meetings will be held to explore how an Access to Justice Commission may improve access to justice.

Access to Justice Commissions are formal entities that bring together the highest level of the state’s courts, organized bar and other stakeholders to support the expansion of access to civil justice for low-income and disadvantaged people. As of March 15, there were Access to Justice Commissions in 27 states and the District of Columbia. Most of the Commissions were created by those state’s Supreme Court.

Access to Justice Commissions have been proven to have a major impact in expanding support for self-represented litigants in the courts; increasing state-level funding for civil legal aid; developing new initiatives to increase pro bono services by attorneys; promoting collaboration and coordination among civil legal aid providers; building a commitment to pro bono and support for legal aid among law students and new lawyers; and increasing awareness among legislators and other key decision makers, the bar, the judiciary and the general public about the legal needs of low-income and disadvantaged people and the social and economic benefits of ensuring that they do not go unmet.
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