Charity legal work isn't done for free

Posted: Monday, June 28, 2010

Last Thursday Alaska's Attorney General Dan Sullivan visited Juneau to preside over a gathering that was called a pro bono summit.

The idea was to invite members of Juneau's legal community to come together to learn more about the incredible need for members of the legal profession to do more volunteer work. I am pleased to have been there, and I learned some new things I hadn't known before.

Sullivan has been at the head of the Alaska Department of Law for a little more than a year. He said there had been talk about addressing the shortfall in pro bono services since before Gov. Palin appointed him to his position. When Sean Parnell became governor last summer, he chose to make combating domestic violence and sexual assault one of the highest priorities of his administration. Last December a comprehensive strategy to address this problem head-on was unveiled. Over the course of this year's legislative session, several pieces of legislation were enacted that increase the legal resources available to prosecutors to fight the scourge of domestic violence.

Gov. Parnell took his fight against domestic violence and sexual assault one step further with the 'Choose Respect' campaign earlier this year. When I heard about the pro bono summit, I wasn't sure what new information I might be exposed to, but I went anyway. After the Attorney General spoke, and we watched some video-recorded remarks from Parnell and Juneau's Mayor Bruce Botelho. He reminded us all that the full phrase for volunteer legal work is pro bono publico which means for the public good. Because all representation is particular to an individual client, this is a somewhat counter-intuitive definition. How can something that is by its very nature targeted to an individual be for the good of every one? The answer lies in the cumulative effect of each volunteer attorney's efforts donating time and legal skills to address client's needs.

There are numerous programs that try to match clients in need of pro bono representation with attorneys willing to take their cases. The Alaska Network on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault is the group with which I have the most experience. As fate would have it, I was slated to travel to Anchorage on Thursday evening for a divorce hearing for an ANDVSA client on Friday. ANDVSA is constantly looking for attorneys to take cases, for clients all over Alaska.

That's how I, as a Juneau attorney, ended up with an Anchorage case. In addition to ANDVSA, the Alaska Bar Association has an independent pro bono program, and the cases it assigns are not restricted to marital and family law. Perhaps the most far-reaching program for legal services for Alaskans who can not afford to pay for an attorney is the Alaska Legal Services Corporation. This private non-profit is a much smaller operation than it once was.

Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, there was over a million dollars appropriated every year to fund staff attorneys at Legal Services offices across Alaska. In time, however, Legal Services funding was zeroed out by the Legislature. This session, it was restored to the modest level funding level of $200,000, but this still does not go very far in terms of paying for counsel for indigent Alaskans.

I understand that there is no such thing as a free lunch. The Legislature has a duty to allocate scarce funds carefully, but I have never supported the elimination of all funding for Legal Services. As a non-profit, Legal Services aggressively raises funds, but such efforts can not replace the need for a reasonable amount of funding from the State of Alaska. I don't know what the right number is, but I think it is somewhere north of $200,000 and I hope the Legislature will in coming years continue the trend of making more funds available to this worthy cause.

One of the most interesting speakers at the pro bono summit was one of the victims' advocates from the local women's shelter, Aiding Women in Abuse or Rape Emergencies. These women are on the front line in responding to crisis situations, and it was illuminating to hear about one advocate's challenges in multi-tasking and trying to help without giving legal advice.

Statistically it has been repeatedly proven in Alaska and across our country that the single most effective way to prevent a victim of domestic violence from being physically harmed again is to provide the legal representation to not just end an abusive relationship, but also to achieve property and custody outcomes that directly brighten women's futures.

Before I left the pro bono summit, I told the ANDVSA case co-ordinator that I would be finishing my work on one case the next day, and would take another one. She smiled and told me she had a case for me, and she would send me the information to get started. The next day, in Anchorage, as I walked out of the Nesbett Courthouse with my client, her Anchorage advocate, and the others who had been there in court, my client hugged and thanked me. She was so relieved and happy to be getting on with her life. I felt like I had really helped her out, and it doesn't get much better than that.

• Ben Brown is an attorney living in Juneau.

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