Brennan Center Access to Justice Updates
Brennan Center Access to Justice Updates:
1) First Star Releases 50-State Report Card on Legal Representation for Abused and Neglected Children in Foster Care; Twenty-One States Receive Low Marks
Children throughout the United States will benefit if states implement findings from a recent report that documents the poor quality of legal representation for abused and neglected children in foster care. In April 2007, First Star, a national child advocacy organization, released A Child’s Right to Counsel: First Star’s National Report Card on Legal Representation for Children, a 50 state report card rating each state’s child welfare system. A shocking 21 states received grades of D or F, and another 11 received C’s. Meanwhile, only five states earned A’s: Connecticut, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, and West Virginia. One of the key criteria for the grading system was whether the state provides a right to counsel to abused and neglected foster children in court proceedings, which many advocates believe is vital for the well-being of children. The report is part of a larger campaign by First Star to guarantee that children in dependency and foster care proceedings will receive attorneys and to develop mandatory standards to guide legal practice for attorneys handling their cases. Deborah Sams, CEO of First Star, says, “Our objective is to improve the lives of abused and neglected children by strengthening the laws that guarantee them effective legal representation. Experts and practitioners across the country agree that children who are represented by well-trained, client directed attorneys in dependency hearings receive the best care and have a much stronger chance for success.” To read the report, see: http://www.firststar.org/documents/FIRSTSTARReportCard07.pdf. News Release, Most States Fail to Protect the Legal Rights of Children in Foster Care, New Study Finds, First Star, April 2007.
2) Washington State Approves $5.27 Million in New Funds For Civil Legal Aid
Low-income Washingtonians will benefit from the state legislature’s approval of a $5.27 million increase for civil legal aid in its FY 2007-2009 budget, which brings the state’s total allocation of funds for civil legal aid to $22.5 million. The legislature’s decision to increase funding comes after significant advocacy by the legal services community and the state’s judicial branch agencies. The additional funding will assist in filling Washington’s justice gap by expanding legal services to rural and isolated communities in the state. Jim Bamberger, the director of Washington State’s Office of Civil Legal Aid, says, “For decades the legal aid community has struggled to effectively serve low income people in isolated parts of the state which are disproportionately marked by high rates of poverty and few alternative legal resources.” The legal services community has also expressed enthusiasm about the increase. César Torres, the executive director of LSC-funded Northwest Justice Project (NJP), says, “We are grateful for the confidence that the Legislature expressed in NJP and our state-funded partners, and are committed to continuing to deliver high quality, effective legal services that are responsive to the most critical needs of our client communities.” News Release, Legislature Increases Civil Legal Aid Funding Services for Rural Communities to Expand New Efficiencies to Be Realized in King County, Washington State Office of Civil Legal Aid, April 24, 2007; also based on original reporting by Brennan Center staff.
3) Washington Supreme Court to Review Claim For Constitutional Right to Counsel in Civil Custody Proceedings
In April 2007, the Washington State Supreme Court agreed to review a case directly addressing the scope of the right to counsel in civil cases under the Washington State Constitution. King v. King involves a woman who lost custody of her children after a five-day trial in which she represented herself while the father was represented by private counsel. Brenda King was the mother and primary parent of three children when her husband sought a divorce. Ms. King attempted unsuccessfully to secure legal representation from civil legal aid programs, because while the programs agreed that she needed assistance, they lacked the resources to represent her. When Ms. King requested court-appointed counsel, the trial court recognized that she was seriously disadvantaged at trial, but ruled that it lacked the authority to grant her request. On April 2, 2007, while King v. King was pending before the state Court of Appeals, the Washington Supreme Court assumed jurisdiction over the case. Six amici have filed briefs in the case, including the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, the Attorney General of Washington, the Washington State Bar Association, a group of international law scholars, and a group of retired Washington state trial court judges represented by the Brennan Center for Justice and private counsel. Oral arguments in King v. King will be heard on May 31, 2007. Based on original reporting by Brennan Center staff.
4) Commission for the Legal Empowerment of the Poor is Sponsored by United Nations Development Programme to Improve Legal Protection Around the Globe
The United Nations Development Programme is sponsoring the Commission for the Legal Empowerment of the Poor, an innovate initiative to examine how poverty, exclusion, and the law are linked. The Commission, chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Hernando de Soto, a leading Peruvian economist, will explore solutions to addressing the needs of poor people around the world. The Commission will specifically focus on the ways in which poverty pushes people to live outside of the rule of law and the role that governments and foundations can play in promoting legal reforms to reduce poverty. One of the Commission’s working groups will specifically focus on Access to Justice and the Rule of Law. This working group will look at expanding access for poor people to legal services, ending legal exclusion, and promoting knowledge of the legal system. Secretary Albright says, “This is a wholly different approach to the poverty debate. While many worthy initiatives are underway to fight global poverty, our Commission will focus on a unique and overlooked aspect of the problem: the inextricable link between pervasive poverty and the absence of legal protections for the poor.” Significant pro bono assistance for the Commission will be provided by Baker & McKenzie. News Release, Baker & McKenzie Lends Pro Bono Support to UN-Affiliated Legal Empowerment Commission, LawFuel.com, May 1, 2007; News Release, Global Poverty Linked to Scarce Rule of Law, Commission on Legal Empowerment for the Poor, Sept. 13, 2005.