Benjamin

CHARLESTON -- The state Supreme Court will initiate a program that will make lawyers more easily accessible to those who may not be able to afford them.

The Access to Justice program, proposed by Justice Brent Benjamin, is an attempt to help those people involved in a number of legal issues -– from divorce to child custody to landlord-tenant cases -– who normally would be representing themselves in court because they lack the finances to afford professional assistance.

The program would provide aid to a variety of people seeking its services.

For example, those working who do not have wills and do not have enough money to afford legal help to draw up a will may be assisted, said Jennifer Bundy, public information officer for the Supreme Court.

Domestic violence victims who cannot afford a lawyer may benefit from the program.

"I'm talking about the working person striving to make ends meet at the end of the month; the single parent trying to keep his or her head above water; the senior citizen on a fixed income; and the ordinary middle-class family raising children during troubled economic times," Benjamin said in a news release. "In short, I'm talking about our friends and neighbors."

To carry out its work, Access to Justice is expected to establish subcommittees. Some of those subcommittee topics are predicted to be pro se litigants, pro bono services, Access to Justice for working West Virginians, resource development, domestic violence and elder law and disproportionate minority contact with the courts.

Lawyers for the program would work on a pro-bono basis, which means they would basically volunteer to help with the cases.

Because it is "almost nearly impossible to staff a volunteer force," there will be many incentives to encourage lawyers to do the pro-bono work, said Jennifer Singletary, special counsel to the Supreme Court.

For instance, one possibility is a repayment of student loans -– "anything that could be an incentive to get lawyers to provide pro-bono hours," Singletary said in a phone interview.

Because there are groups already performing this type of work, the Supreme Court will work with the State Bar, Legal Aid of West Virginia and West Virginia's voluntary bar associations and groups to determine where gaps lie and which areas can be improved.

A nine-member Access to Justice commission will decide where barriers exist and how to eliminate them so all citizens can have easier access to the courts.

The West Virginia University College of Law and the governor will nominate one member each, the State Bar will nominate three members and the Supreme Court will nominate four members to the Access to Justice commission.

Appointment of the committee will lie in the hands of the chief justice of the Supreme Court, who will be Benjamin in 2009.

Letters are being sent out now to those with nominating authority, Singletary said.

She hopes the letters will be back to Benjamin by Jan. 13, the start of the spring Supreme Court session.

Benjamin is eager for the program to begin.

"Legal problems can strike anyone, regardless of resources," he said in the release. "We -– the judiciary and the Bar –- can delay this important task no longer."

The State Bar is looking forward to its work with the Supreme Court on the program, Executive Director Anita R. Casey said.

"The Access to Justice Commission will bring an unprecedented amount of coordination to existing legal outreach programs and allow them to expand," she said in a news release. "It also will encourage attorneys who have not done much pro bono work to do more; once they participate, they will see the benefit to themselves and their communities."

Before Access to Justice's inception, there was tireless research, work with other states' access leaders and service providers and study of other states' models, Singletary said.

"My division intends for West Virginia's Commission to rapidly move from a think tank to an all-out action force to be reckoned with," she said in a news release. "The West Virginia Court System has been consistently making procedural improvements under the creative and dynamic administrative direction of Steve Canterbury.

"A statewide Access to Justice Commission will dramatically build on those improvements in an unprecedented way –- by assessing what West Virginians need to truly achieve the 'justice for all' anticipated in the pledge to the American flag – and meeting those identified needs."

"West Virginia is primed and ready to become a role-model for social justice."

The program has the potential to help many people, Bundy said.

"Think of yourself and your family members and your friends -- how many people do you know involved in a divorce, a child custody case?" she said. "This could potentially help them or you. We don't want to take money away from the working lawyers in West Virginia, but the economy is bad in the country and in West Virginia. We're trying to think of a way to help them where money will not be a barrier."

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