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November 15, 2013 President’s Message
ACBA members urged to provide pro bono services

by Nancy L. Heilman

“Equal justice under law is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status,” according to Lewis Powell Jr., former U.S. Supreme Court associate justice.

The recent economic turmoil — in these days of sequestration, public service attorney layoffs, and budget cuts at the federal, state and local level — has resulted in devastating financial gaps affecting the right to equal justice. The Pennsylvania Rules of Professional Conduct encourage the preservation of this ideal through voluntary pro bono public service. Therefore, it is critical that members of the bar step forward to offer pro bono legal services directly or through donations to providers of these services.

In November 2012 the U.S. Census Bureau reported that more than 16 percent of the U.S. population lives in poverty, including almost 20 percent of American children. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has set the poverty threshold for a family of four at a gross household income not exceeding $23,550 annually ($1,963 monthly). The number for a single person household does not exceed $11,490 annually ($958 monthly). Thirty-six percent of the impoverished live in single-parent families.

Many opportunities exist for attorneys of any experience level to serve in a pro bono capacity through the Pro Bono Center of the Allegheny County Bar Foundation. The center recruits, trains and supports volunteer attorneys who provide pro bono legal assistance. I invite you to visit the foundation website to review the mission statement of the Pittsburgh Pro Bono Partnership, through which the center collaborates with law firms, legal departments and the Neighborhood Legal Services Association to offer its signature pro bono legal services to those in our community with limited means. With the assistance of our partners in the legal community, the center continues to grow as a substantial resource in identifying the right pro bono opportunities for our lawyers.

Our bar association is working strenuously to improve equal access to justice for our low-income neighbors through grants and legislative efforts. This past year, the Board of Governors passed two resolutions: one drafted by the Senior Lawyers Committee promoting measures that would allow retired and inactive attorneys to practice law for the limited purpose of providing pro bono service; and one presented by the Public Service Committee urging the Commonwealth to establish a right to counsel for low-income individuals in civil legal proceedings addressing the basic human needs of shelter, sustenance, safety, health, and child custody.

From Oct. 21-25, the ACBA participated in National Pro Bono Week, which focused on the increased need for pro bono services and celebrated the outstanding work of lawyers who have volunteered their time throughout the year. The bar association encouraged attorneys to take the Pro Bono Pledge, committing their time to at least one case in 2014. Some attended the Legal Services Corporation panel discussions, which showcased Pittsburgh’s leadership in pro bono initiatives. Others volunteered their time to provide free legal services to those in need for 
protection-from-abuse hearings, custody conciliations, criminal record expungements, or drafting wills.

On Oct. 29, the ACBA hosted a Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee Public Hearing, framed as “Civil Legal Representation of the Indigent: Have We Achieved Equal Access to Justice?” The bar association will be tracking the activity of the committee in the months following the hearing.

Although the American Bar Association reserved only one week for the National Pro Bono celebration, the ACBA encourages its members and other partners to remain conscientious regarding our pro bono obligations throughout the entire year.