Virginia Looks To Volunteer Attorneys To Boost Access To Strained Legal Aid Programs
The legal community in Virginia is using a new online tool to better connect volunteer lawyers with low income people who need their help.
Legal aid attorneys in Virginia are often overworked and underfunded, so they’re turning to the private sector. Ray White with the Virginia Law Foundation said JusticeServer.org allows legal aid attorneys to post cases online for private attorneys across the state to identify and take on pro bono.
“It’s sort of like a matchmaking service for lawyers and people in need of legal services,” White said.
That’s important because in civil matters, like landlord-tenant disputes, custody battles and divorce, an attorney is a luxury, not a right like it is for a defendant in a criminal case. And studiesshow people who have a lawyer in civil cases are twice as likely to win.
“You could lose your house,” said Lisa Bennett, an attorney with Central Virginia Legal Aid Society. “You could lose your kids. You could lose some of the most basic fundamental benefits that you have without the benefit of having a lawyer appointed for you.”
Attorneys can also use the online service to brush up on areas of law they don't normally practice.
All Virginia attorneys take an oath to devote about 40 hours a year to pro bono work. Virginia lawyers are completing a fraction of that.
According to the Virginia State Bar, funding for legal aid programs in the state is declining, while Virginia’s poverty population is rising. Currently there is one legal aid lawyer in Virginia for every 7,237 persons at or below 125 percent of the federal poverty level.