By Judge Roger Crittenden
Imagine facing serious, life-changing legal issues such as bankruptcy, foreclosure, domestic violence or wrongful eviction and not being able to afford an attorney.
That's the reality for thousands of low-income Kentuckians.
As we celebrate National Pro Bono Week Oct. 20 to 26, the Kentucky Access to Justice Commission is highlighting widespread demand for civil legal aid in Kentucky and recognizing attorneys who provide free legal counsel to those who need it most.
These acts of pro bono — for the public good — service are more important than ever as Kentucky's four legal aid programs struggle to meet the growing need.
As Chief Justice John Minton mentioned during his recent State of the Judiciary address, statewide legal aid programs have lost $3 million since 2007 due to a decrease in state and federal funding, filing fees and grants. That's one-quarter of their budgets. There are 16 fewer attorneys and five fewer offices when the number of low-income Kentuckians increased by 27 percent.
In spite of these financial setbacks, legal aid managed to help nearly 68,000 low-income people last year.
Unfortunately, 55 percent of eligible applicants were denied legal services because there weren't enough resources.
Although attorneys in Kentucky are not required to do pro bono work, they are stepping up to fill the gap. From 2007 to 2012, the number of attorneys donating legal services increased 47 percent and the number of hours donated went up 28 percent.
That's good news to those working to provide better access to legal services. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Kentucky formed the KAJC to expand access to civil legal aid to low-income Kentuckians. The Kentucky Bar Association and the Kentucky Volunteer Lawyer Program are also committed to that goal.
We're taking a new approach to determine what we can offer, even in a limited capacity, for those turned away from more comprehensive legal assistance.
One example is online services. Kentucky's self-help website, www.kyjustice.org, is designed for those who cannot afford an attorney and provides legal forms and information on a wide range of civil legal matters. More legal forms can be found on the Kentucky Court of Justice website at www.courts.ky.gov.
The KAJC has helped increase the informational materials available to the public. Individuals will soon be able to obtain copies of the new KAJC booklet titled "Your Day in Court," a guide for self-represented litigants, at circuit court clerks' offices across the state. The KAJC has also provided posters that list the legal guidance circuit court clerks can and cannot provide.
We're also reaching across government agency lines to make sure this information is being distributed outside of the courthouses. This year the KAJC teamed up with the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives to offer a series of trainings to public librarians statewide
on how to help individuals access and use legal resources. The KAJC has also distributed thousands of bookmarks listing legal resources for public libraries to make available to patrons.
The KAJC continues to find new ways to help attorneys get involved. For example, some civil legal aid programs offer Ask-A-Lawyer programs, legal clinics in some areas, referrals to private attorneys who donate legal services and educational programs on various legal matters.
And finally, the KAJC has worked with the Supreme Court to make a rule change that allows corporate attorneys with a limited license in Kentucky to donate legal services to low-income individuals through a legal aid program.
We're serving a lot of people but many more still need our support. A well-known quote by Mother Teresa says, "If you can't feed a hundred people, feed just one."
I commend the attorneys who make a difference by volunteering their services to people in need. I encourage other attorneys to begin answering the call to pro bono service by helping just one. You'll be glad you did.
Roger Crittenden, a retired circuit judge,is chair of the Kentucky Access to Justice Commission.