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A bright spot in the justice gap

By Dave Jones
Chair, Assembly Judiciary Committee

Dave Jones
Jones

According to their Web site, Christie, Parker and Hale practices intellectual property law in southern California, while the Tucker Huss firm in San Francisco represents clients in employment benefits matters. 

Unless you practice intellectual property law or employment law, you may not be familiar with either firm. They’re not among the biggest firms in the state, and you won’t find them on the new AmLaw 100 list. I have no doubt that they are excellent firms, but as I have not practiced in these two areas of the law, I was not familiar with them until their names jumped out at me on a list of contributors to the Justice Gap Fund, a new State Bar program that collects voluntary donations from California lawyers to support legal services for impoverished Californians. 

What set these firms apart was that all 41 lawyers at Christie, Parker and Hale and all 16 lawyers at Tucker Huss decided to contribute to the Justice Gap Fund. These two exemplary firms represent the next generation in the expansion of pro bono from the prestigious headline-makers we normally associate with big pro bono accomplishments to the small and mid-size firms that employ the greatest number of California lawyers.

Lawyers at other firms, large, medium, small and solo — over 10,000 lawyers in all — have so far contributed to the Justice Gap Fund, raising nearly $1 million in badly needed funding for programs that make the law work for the most needy among us. Most contributors made their donations earlier this year by adding the suggested $100 (or some other amount) to their State Bar dues payments. This ability to contribute via the dues statement came about as the result of a 2006 bill I authored as Chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. 

Others took advantage of the State Bar’s easy and secure online function at http://calbar.org/justicegapfund. Still others creatively multiplied their contributions, like attorney Betty Hoffenberg, an advisor to the Sidney Stern Memorial Trust, who arranged for the Trust to contribute $1,500. If you missed the line on the dues form, donations can still be made today, or any time throughout the year. Not only are your donations tax deductible, they can help you achieve your voluntary pro bono ethical commitment under Bus. & Prof. Code Section 6073. 

While the Justice Gap Fund was initiated by legislation, it was further developed by a diverse and distinguished task force of lawyers and judges under the leadership of Justice Douglas Miller of the Fourth District Court of Appeal, assisted by Justice James Lambden of the First District and Joseph Chairez of Baker Hostetler, and made up of lawyers from across the profession.

Importantly, the State Bar guaranteed that contributions could be made with confidence by deciding that all contributions to the Justice Gap Fund are administered by the Legal Services Trust Fund Commission and distributed only to qualified legal services organizations previously approved by the State Bar. Relying on this framework means that there are no concerns about the qualifications of recipients, or favoritism in the distribution, and no additional administrative costs.

The State Bar passes all contributions fully and directly to the legal aid programs providing assistance to low-income clients, such as victims of domestic violence and elder abuse, helping to keep families intact by avoiding homelessness and establishing guardianships, and working to ensure that low-income children receive needed health care and special education services. 

Contributions to the Justice Gap Fund are needed now more than ever because of the economic recession, the ongoing mortgage foreclosure crisis, the governor’s proposed budget cuts for the aged, children and people with disabilities, and because low interest rates have depressed IOLTA account returns — which make up our principal source of legal aid funding — below expected levels. The nonpartisan Commission on Access to Justice estimated the “justice gap” — the difference between the amount provided for and the amount available for legal services for the poor — at approximately $400 million per year.

California still lags behind other states in total funding for indigent legal services. And despite the recommendation of the Access Commission to double the state budget allocation for legal aid, the financial and political prospects for increased state funding will continue to be remote for the foreseeable future. 

Lawyers cannot be expected to close the gap solely with voluntary charitable contributions, but we have demonstrated that we can lead by example. While we have continuing challenges to meet other needs for access to justice, including providing court interpreters in critical civil matters, funding conservatorship reform, expanding the availability of self-help services and reforming indigent fee waivers, the creation of the Justice Gap Fund and the thousands of lawyers who donated are a bright spot in the continuing challenge to ensure justice for all. For that our profession can be rightfully proud.

If you have not done so, I hope you and your firm will make a contribution to the Justice Gap Fund today. And thanks again to all the lawyers and firms, including especially those 100 percent donors like Christie, Parker & Hale and Tucker Huss, who have already done so. If 100 percent of the lawyers in your firm contributed to the Justice Gap Fund, let the bar know so your firm can be included in the recognition being planning by the bar. (See page 12.)

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