Chief justice appeals
In response to a growing crisis of access to the legal system by the state's low-income residents, California Chief Justice Ronald George is appealing to State Bar members to increase their participation in pro bono programs. (See Letters to the editor.)
Referring to recent reductions in federal funding for legal services programs, George said the situation "demands immediate attention and concerted action from the bench and the bar. I urge all lawyers from all practice settings and levels of experience to offer legal services to the indigent on a pro bono basis."
The State Bar recently released its findings on the issue of legal access with a report, And Justice For All; Fulfilling the Promise of Access to Civil Justice in California.
Compared to 1980, according to the report, 130 fewer attorneys today are providing full-time legal services to the poor, while the number of poor people in the state has increased by more than 2 million.
Adding to this decline, California's legal services programs were hit with a 38 percent reduction as a result of recent cuts in the budget of the federal Legal Services Corporation, which funds the programs that provide legal aid to the poor.
In 1989, the State Bar Board of Governors passed a resolution urging the state's attorneys to devote at least 50 hours a year to pro bono work.
In May, the Judicial Council adopted a resolution endorsing a joint pro bono effort with the State Bar. The Judicial Council is the policy-making body of the state's courts and is chaired by the chief justice.
The Judicial Council's resolution encouraged members of the judiciary to contribute to the effort of encouraging pro bono activities through such activities as assisting in the training of pro bono lawyers and working with programs to make clinics available at or near the courthouse for those who cannot otherwise afford counsel.
"Equal access to justice is a fundamental element of our legal system," wrote George in his letter to State Bar members. "To perform their judicial function, our courts must be accessible to all of our citizens. However, equal access to justice is clearly at risk if poor and low-income Californians are unable to obtain the legal representation they need but cannot afford."
The chief justice urged attorneys who have not yet made a pro bono commitment to contact their local bar associations or call the State Bar Office of Legal Services at 1-800/628-4858 for more information.