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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pro Bono Summit in Oklahoma

Increasing access to justice for everyone is an issue lawyers, judges, court personnel and court clerks face daily.  It is even more concerning as we face a tough economy.  This past week Oklahoma took another step forward, opening our courthouse doors a little farther. 

The first (hopefully, annual) Pro Bono Summit was held October 29th at the University of Oklahoma College of Law.  The Oklahoma Bar Association’s President, Allen M. Smallwood and the OBA Access to Justice Committee invited an impressive gathering of justices, judges, court personnel, lawyers and other invitees to take another step toward greater access to the civil court system for all Oklahomans.

There are a number of organizations in the state providing free civil legal assistance to those who cannot afford representation.  Unfortunately, the number of lawyers regularly engaged in serving people living at the federal poverty level is far surpassed by the number of Oklahomans living on a very low income.
Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma and Oklahoma Indian Legal Services are two of the largest organizations tasked with this "civil law" mission. 

There are quite a few non-profit or pro bono organizations in the state which routinely match low-income people having civil legal problems to volunteer lawyers.  These programs have developed through religious and civic organizations, bar associations, Oklahoma's three law schools, and other non-profits closely linked with the social services community.  Though we have organized, sometimes loosely, sometimes with a more concerted effort, in many communities across the state, this Pro Bono Summit is the largest state-wide attempt at gathering the key players in the Oklahoma justice community for this purpose.

To open the Summit, the keynote address was given by Colorado Supreme Court Justice Gregory Hobbs.  Justice Hobbs is a leader in pro bono development and access to justice issues in Colorado.  He reminded us, as lawyers, that part of our oath is to help those less fortunate than ourselves.  To be not only an officer of the court, but one who helps open doors for all who need justice, including the disenfranchised.

Oklahoma lawyer and retired Judge John Paddleford, Oklahoma City, was recognized for outstanding pro bono efforts.  Though retired, Judge Paddleford continues to go to the courthouse every week and assist people who cannot afford a lawyer.  The former Judge helps with court forms, information and advice to those who cannot afford a lawyer, mostly in the area of guardianships for children.

After a brief time of inspiration and overview with moderator, Jack Brown, participants spent the afternoon delving into issues involving increasing access to justice for low-income Oklahomans, including education, increasing volunteerism among lawyers, improving justice community partnerships, self-help clinics and limited representation or brief legal services.  After information and ideas were exchanged in the five smaller groups, each reported back to the full group.  Jack Brown, a lawyer with Jones, Gotcher & Bogan, P.C., and also a member of the Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma Board of Directors, summarized the reported goals and ideas, and sent the smaller groups back to the drawing board to develop action items that participants can work toward in the coming year.

Summit leadership expects that from these discussion and planning sessions, will emerge short-term and long-term strategies to continue the work that the legal system has already begun.  That is, to increase access to justice for those who can least afford it and who can least afford to be without representation.

Did anything change over the weekend?  Well, maybe.  A core group of justice community leadership has had time to discuss and reflect upon the actions that we can take over the next year and those we can build toward in the coming years, to improve access to the courts for the most vulnerable among us.  Now, that's a great start!

"There are times, young fellah, when every one of us must make a stand for human rights and justice, or you never feel clean again."

-Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Lost World