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A Message from the Executive Director - Fall/Winter 2009

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News & Media

A Message from the Executive Director - Fall/Winter 2009

How do people who can't afford an attorney access justice if they are detained by the government? The U.S. has spent the last fifty years asking this question in different settings, and invariably the answer has been that our constitution requires that counsel be assigned. A year ago, the City Bar Justice Center set out to look at this issue more closely after receiving a petition from immigrants detained in Manhattan at the Varick Federal detention center.

The City Bar Justice Center has just released a report based on 158 interviews by pro bono volunteer attorneys we organized to staff a legal clinic at Varick. Our report, which has garnered significant media interest, draws several conclusions from the data. First, almost 40% of those detainees we counseled had a possible defense to removal. Second, 90% could not afford to post the bonds that were set and thus remained detained. Third, the report mirrors the conclusion of the City Bar Immigration and Naturalization Committee's recent report in stating that there should be a right to assigned counsel for detained immigrants who cannot afford to hire a private attorney. Those without a defense would know early in the process and could make an informed decision to leave or seek voluntary departure, freeing up the resources of the detention facilities, the immigration courts and the federal courts.

The core question of how we ensure access to the courts for the least powerful in our society is also the subject of a new essay collection we have just released, Leaders for Justice: New York City Bar Presidents on Pro Bono and Access to Justice. On a topic prone to abstraction, our current and past City Bar leaders offer concrete descriptions of what motivated them to do pro bono and to lead pro bono initiatives, as well as describing how they responded to the events of the day by building institutions to provide opportunities, training and support for pro bono service. We hope these essays inspire the current and next generation of leaders in the legal profession. On both pro bono and adequate funding for civil legal services, the profession must remain steadfast or we risk losing the important progress that has been made.

The economic recession affects all of us, but the poor have the fewest options for surviving. While continuing pro bono efforts, we also need to find a solution to the drastic decrease in IOLA funding for civil legal services in 2010, so that we don't exacerbate the justice gap.