‘Pro Bono’ Attorneys Help To Provide Access To Justice System

  • 5/21/2003
  • Mary Beth Conway and Ann Williams
  • Volunteer Legal Services Project
  • Source: New York > Rochester / Finger Lakes

An ordinary person simply cannot walk into a courtroom and have any hope of dealing with its complicated process, much less of obtaining justice.

Whether you are in danger of losing your home or whether you need to get out of a physically abusive relationship or whether you feel a child has been unfairly taken away, among other things, Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County, Inc. (VLSP) helps to serve the poor in Monroe County by matching clients with highly skilled volunteer attorneys who represent them in civil matters including, but not limited to, divorce (in cases involving domestic violence), custody, child support, standby guardianships, wills, health care directives, obtaining public benefits, bankruptcy, housing and tax matters. In addition, VLSP runs clinics to provide clients with self-help advice in handling debt matters and obtaining pro se divorces.

The mission of VLSP is to improve the quality of life for low-income people in Monroe County by insuring the existence of a readily available panel of skilled volunteer attorneys to resolve serious legal problems of the poor. Our volunteers assist clients in obtaining divorces from violent spouses, getting unemployment or Social Security benefits to support their families, prevent the loss of many of our clients' homes and help clients with HIV/AIDS and other terminal illnesses plan for their children's future care. Simply put, the poor in Monroe County would not be able to effectively access the justice system without the help of pro bono attorneys.

Our clients have expressed great appreciation for the work that has been done on their behalf. In addition, our volunteers enjoy great personal rewards for representing clients who would not otherwise have the legal assistance they desperately need. As such, pro bono is a win-win situation; and in the end, an attorney may even find that he or she got more out of it than the client did.

The following represent typical situations in which the VLSP volunteer attorney has made it possible for clients to effectively access the justice system. Low-income parents are often appointed counsel in a custody case; however, grandparents seeking custody of their grandchildren are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney. VLSP volunteer attorneys help these grandparents with custody or visitation proceedings and provide greater stability for the children involved.

Parents with HIV/AIDS or other life-threatening illnesses face many challenges but their greatest concern is who will take care of their children when they are no longer able to. VLSP volunteers help these clients achieve piece of mind about their children's future through standby guardianship proceedings in Surrogate's Court.

Low-income domestic violence victims face many challenges as well, one of which is to separate themselves from their batterer. VLSP volunteer attorneys help these individuals obtain a divorce as well as other relief such as custody and child support orders. Although other agencies may handle these issues, they are certainly not equipped to handle all of the cases that arise in this community.

Clients who have permanent disabilities that prevent them from being self-supporting often seek supplemental security income benefits from the Social Security Administration. The issue of whether a client is entitled to benefits is often resolved at a hearing before an administrative law judge. The skills of a volunteer attorney in such a forum significantly increases the likelihood that the client will be successful in obtaining benefits thus providing economic stability for a low-income family.

Although VLSP is proud to say it has a panel of dedicated volunteers to assist us with these various issues, we hope to increase the number of volunteers significantly in the near future. The existing agencies in this community are simply not equipped to assist all the low-income individuals who are in such dire need of help. The range of assistance needed by these individuals varies from advice to litigation. VLSP offers training and support to those interested in learning a new practice area.

If every attorney took just one or two VLSP cases every year, imagine what an impact that would have on equal access to our justice system. Please keep this in mind and consider making a difference in the lives of low-income people in Rochester.

Mary Beth Conway has been the family law attorney for Volunteer Legal Services, Inc. since 1999. She is a member of the Family Law Section of the Monroe County Bar Association and a member of GRAWA. She previously worked in private practice.

Ann M. Williams is a staff attorney for VLSP's Permanancy Planning Project. Prior to joining VLSP in October 2002, she gained experience in private practice.