Pro bono lawyers give so all have access to legal system

October 17, 2013 

This is the 9th Annual National Pro Bono Week — a recognition of the essential role of lawyers in providing free legal services to those without the means to pay. In Fayette County, we will celebrate this work with our Pro Bono Recognition luncheon for dozens of local attorneys who have helped people in need. Unfortunately, the need far outstrips the capacity of the organized bar. It is not for lack of effort.

The American Bar Association's Model Rules of Professional Conduct recommend that a lawyer devote at least 50 hours per year to pro bono work. The Kentucky Supreme Court adopted a similar rule in 1991. In March, the ABA released Supporting Justice III, its latest study of the pro bono work of American lawyers. It found that 80 percent of lawyers provide pro bono services, with 36 percent providing at least 50 hours per year. This continues a growth trend in the past decade. The ABA's initial study in 2004 showed that 66 percent of lawyers provided pro bono services. By 2008, that incidence had risen to 73 percent. The average number of hours donated rose from 39 per year in 2004 to 56.5 hours in this most recent study.

The Fayette County Bar Association has maintained an active pro bono program for nearly 30 years. Hundreds of lawyers provide thousands of hours of free legal services every year. Most cases involve family law, consumer protection or landlord/tenant matters. These are basic needs for the clients involved. Unfortunately, our program has been dramatically affected by a loss of funding.

For many years, the Fayette County Pro Bono Program received substantial grant funding from the Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) Program. Lawyers are not permitted to earn interest on their trust or escrow accounts. The IOLTA Program recoups that interest for public service programs. However, recent historically low interest rates have decimated IOLTA programs across the country.

We found a willing partner in addressing this problem in Legal Aid of the Bluegrass, the legal aid program that covers 33 counties in central, northern and eastern Kentucky. LABG's Executive Director Dick Cullison agreed to absorb the administration of the program and we would continue to recruit and provide attorneys to donate legal services. Fayette County lawyers have responded to this call for help and we are signing up new volunteers each week.

The need continues to far exceed the supply of willing lawyers and LABG's funding is very limited. The ABA study estimates that nearly 80 percent of the legal needs of low and moderate income individuals go unfilled. The continued sluggishness in the economy has exacerbated this need in virtually every area of legal representation. But, the effort to serve continues.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." While president of the American Bar Association, future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell captured this sentiment in the context of providing legal services: "Equal justice under law is not merely a caption on the façade of the Supreme Court building, it is perhaps the most inspiring ideal of our society. It is one of the ends for which our entire legal system exists ... it is fundamental that justice should be the same, in substance and availability, without regard to economic status."

The lawyers of Fayette County are making every effort to ensure these principles are met in our community. During this Pro Bono Week, we are deeply grateful to those who perform this work every day.

Palmer Gene Vance II is an attorney with Stoll, Keenon and Ogden and president of the Fayette County Bar Association.

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