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June 16, 2009

Philadelphia Bar Association Wins Prestigious ABA Honor: 2009 Harrison Tweed Award

The Philadelphia Bar Association will receive the 2009 Harrison Tweed Award, one of the American Bar Association’s most prestigious honors, for its work with the Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Program.

This program, which has enabled nearly 1,000 low-income Philadelphia homeowners to keep their homes, is a collaborative effort between Philadelphia’s courts and judges; city government; borrowers and lenders; credit counseling associations and Philadelphia Bar Association leaders, public interest attorneys, volunteer attorneys and judges pro tem.

The program has attracted dozens of visitors from other states and counties who are interested in duplicating its success.

“There is no higher accolade than winning the Harrison Tweed award,” says Sayde Ladov, Chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association. “It exemplifies the spirit of cooperation between bench and bar and honors the work of all involved.”

The Tweed award was created in 1956 to recognize the extraordinary achievements of bar associations in creating access to justice for the poor. The award is given annually by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

The award will be formally presented on July 31 at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago during a joint luncheon of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, National Association of Bar Executives and National Conference of Bar Foundations.

As the number of mortgage foreclosure filings reached record levels in 2008, the leadership of the Philadelphia courts turned to the Mortgage Foreclosure Steering Committee, chaired by former Court of Common Pleas President Judge C. Darnell Jones II and Judge Annette M. Rizzo. The committee includes representatives from the City Solicitor’s Office, Sheriff’s Office, attorneys representing lenders and borrowers, housing and community activities, and Philadelphia Bar Association members and committee representatives.

Together, they formed the Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Diversion Pilot Program. Since its introduction in June 2008, the program has allowed nearly 1,000 low-income Philadelphia homeowners to keep their homes.

Pamela Dembe, President Judge of Common Pleas Court, says, “By keeping working families in their homes, this program is directly addressing the effects of recession on Philadelphia. Its benefit in human terms is incalculable.”

She adds, “The Bar Association, the courts, and normally antagonistic attorney groups have forged trust, communication channels and pride. It has also energized everyone to look at new ways that the Court and Bar can develop other programs to benefit our region.”

How the Program Works

Once a mortgage foreclosure is filed in Common Pleas Court, homeowners receive a conciliation conference date and are urged to call the Save Your Home Philly Hotline. Homeowners work with the counselor to develop a new finance plan that is delivered to the lender 10 days before the conciliation conference.

Special conciliation conferences are held weekly where volunteer layers and private attorneys gather with their clients, housing counselors and lenders to work out affordable loan modification or repayment plans.

Judges and judges pro tem are on hand to work out compromises as needed. The Bar Association has played a key role by recruiting and training more than 250 volunteer attorneys who assist homeowners, along with more than 50 high-level members to serve as judges pro tem, presiding at the weekly conferences.

Among U.S. cities, Philadelphia has been particularly vulnerable to the crash of the economy since rowhomes and other single-family dwellings for low-income residents form such a large percentage of the total housing stock. As Judge Annette Rizzo explains, “The Philadelphia Bar Association has shown unparalleled leadership in responding to a most pressing need.”

This is the fourth time (2009, 1996, 1988, 1970) that the Philadelphia Bar Association has been recognized with the Tweed Award.
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