ATJ fund works to increase resources for civil legal aid


By Steve Thorpe

Legal News
Linda Rexer knows that the need for her expertise is not going away. And that is unfortunate.
“Even before the current bad economy, no more than 20 percent of the legal needs of the poor were being met,” she says. “The heart of what we’ve always done revolves around the need for legal services for indigent folks facing civil problems. The need is really huge. It was big when we started the Access to Justice Fund, but has grown dramatically.”

As Executive Director of the Michigan State Bar Foundation, which oversees the Access to Justice Fund and its statewide partnership the Access to Justice Campaign, she has firsthand experience with that need and the efforts to respond to it. 

The Access to Justice Campaign is a partnership of the State Bar of Michigan, the Michigan State Bar Foundation and the state’s civil legal services providers. The goal of the Access to Justice Campaign is to raise funds to improve access to justice for low-income people with civil legal needs.

“It’s a ‘three-legged stool’,” says Rexer. “The three things that keep it steady are the State Bar, the State Bar Foundation and the civil legal aid providers in the state. The goal of the fund is to increase resources for civil legal aid to the poor.” 

The percentage of Michigan’s population eligible for free legal aid increased by 59 percent from 2000 to 2011 and nonprofit legal aid programs must turn away nearly half of all persons who request assistance. Federal funding for legal services has remained flat for over 30 years, with significant funding reductions in recent years. 

At the same time funding has been reduced, the number of people living below the  poverty line in Michigan increased by 50 percent from year 2000 levels. This combination has led to client needs that are unmet and a growing awareness by private lawyers of their responsibility to help.

A 14th Amendment right to counsel for the indigent in criminal matters was established in 1963 in Gideon v. Wainwright. There is no similar protection for civil litigants.

“Unlike the criminal side, where the government pays for representation and there’s a guaranteed right to counsel, that’s not true on the civil side,” Rexer says. “So, for more than 100 years, we’ve had to raise money for that. The largest sources of money do happen to come from the government, including the Legal Services Corporation.”   

In addition to direct financial support, the Representative Assembly of the State Bar of Michigan adopted a “Voluntary Pro Bono Standard” that requires all active members of the bar to deliver pro bono legal services to the poor each year. This can be a combination of representation without charge, professional services to public service or charitable groups and monetary donations to civil legal service agencies. A list of eligible programs is published by the Bar’s Committee on Pro Bono Involvement. The primary focus is on legal representation for the poor because only lawyers can provide legal assistance.

Modern pro bono has descended from two different movements. The first was the lawyer volunteer movement that began in larger cities in the early 1900s and spread to many mid-sized cities by the 1960s. This movement led to the establishment of local legal aid offices in many Michigan cities.

The second movement arose from a Legal Services Corporation (LSC) regulation first adopted in 1983. This regulation required all federally funded legal aid programs to establish and maintain pro bono pro=
grams often with local bar associations.

In addition to donations or traditional in-court representation, attorneys often give advice in clinics and on hotlines, volunteer at self-help centers,  conduct legal education sessions in the community and help train other lawyers to assist the poor.

“The Bar has a really cool presentation on their website called ‘A Lawyer Helps’ where they outline these programs,” Rexer says.
The site offers “real world” examples of people who have benefitted from the initiatives.