COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | AMY FITZPATRICK

Justice for all — An issue for all

Each fall, San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program hosts the Justice for All Celebration to honor the accomplishments and contributions of the nonprofit organization’s volunteers and to underscore the need for access to civil legal services for all members of our community.

For 30 years, SDVLP has been a leading voice, as well as service provider, for San Diego’s abused families, neglected children, elderly, infirm, poor and disenfranchised.

Despite the program’s three decades of providing legal services to thousands of individuals who would otherwise go without, the demand for free representation grows and is more often than not unmet.

As government funding for such assistance continues to be cut dramatically and a difficult economy relegates once-thriving families to lives struggling in poverty, many more of our neighbors cannot afford the representation of an attorney for issues that are critical to their well-being. Evolving social issues also contribute to the increase in need.

Outside of the legal community, there is wide misunderstanding and a lack of appreciation of the importance of equal access to justice. Providing sufficient civil legal assistance is not only a matter of addressing problems that low-income people encounter, but it is also a matter of ensuring basic access to justice for everyone.

Lack of representation should not be an issue for the legal community to address alone — it is an essential issue for all members of the San Diego community to understand and tackle.

According to the Public Welfare Foundation, “For decades, all over the country, legal aid groups have been a driving force that makes change real in millions of lives. They have answers when families need housing, food, health care. It’s their work that corrects bad policy and changes how society treats the most vulnerable.”

Many outside of the legal community do not realize that our judicial system does not guarantee an attorney in civil legal matters — that right is reserved for criminal matters (and a very small subset of civil matters) only. The civil legal system is not designed to be used by lay people, despite many efforts to make it possible.

It takes a trained professional — a lawyer (or paralegal or law student, under the supervision of a lawyer) — to help navigate it, and more importantly, to obtain just results. In California, lawyers are not required to provide free, also known as pro bono, legal services to those who cannot afford them.

SDVLP was established in 1983 after the federal government required private attorney pro bono involvement in the local legal aid programs it funded. With a budget just shy of $52,000, the first priority was volunteer recruitment. By the end of its first year, the program had 100 attorney volunteers providing pro bono legal services in family law, landlord/tenant disputes and consumer issues.

The mission of SDVLP 30 years later remains intact: that all people in San Diego County enjoy equal access to justice and to legal services without regard to economic status.

While the vision is the same, the types of civil representation that individuals require continue to evolve. Over the years, as crucial unmet legal needs that reflect changing social issues have been identified, SDVLP has stepped up to help meet the new demands.

In 1986, Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, affecting hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants. The following year, SDVLP established an immigration law panel to assist San Diego residents to apply for relief under the new law.

At the same time, social consciousness regarding the homeless was expanding as that population grew quickly. SDVLP initiated one of the first local programs to assist the homeless. The organization was active in the first HIV/AIDS legal clinics in San Diego and to this day continues to be the designated primary provider of legal services to those with HIV and AIDS in San Diego County.

SDVLP was at the forefront in providing domestic violence prevention legal services 30 years ago. Satellite offices were established in the Madge Bradley, Vista and El Cajon courthouses to provide domestic violence restraining order assistance.

These court-sited legal clinics pioneered the effort to address the problems of unrepresented litigants who flood the courts. For years SDVLP has also been assisting with the legal needs of foster children and the caregivers who work to keep children out of foster care.

Today, the number of SDVLP volunteer lawyers has grown exponentially, and with the added assistance of law students, paralegals, business owners and others, the organization has hundreds of volunteers contributing annually, supported by a staff of 25. With these individuals’ dedication, SDVLP annually protects and helps more than 5,000 San Diegans who are experiencing significant, life-changing events.

The need for legal representation for those who cannot afford to hire an attorney continues to grow. The legal community’s response has been central in assisting SDVLP in championing this cause. As the program enters its next 30 years, we foresee great opportunities for others to also get involved and make a significant impact in our community. Justice for all is an issue of vital importance for all of us.

Amy Fitzpatrick has served as executive director of San Diego Volunteer Lawyer Program, Inc. for eight years and has been with the nonprofit organization for more than 11 years. On Sept. 19, SDVLP is hosting its annual Justice for All Celebration. For more information, visit http://www.sdvlp.org/events/awards/.

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