Arkansas Access to Justice Awarded SJI Grant for Study on Unrepresented Litigants

The Arkansas Access to Justice Commission is one of nine recipients of a State Justice Institute Technical Assistance Grant for the 3rd quarter of 2012, according to Commission Executive Director Amy Johnson.  The grant will cover $46,400 of the project’s total estimated cost of $69,656.  Grant partners include Arkansas Legal Services Partnership, the Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation, and the Arkansas Administrative Office of the Courts.

The project will build a foundation to establish a statewide strategy for addressing the growing number of unrepresented litigants in Arkansas courts. Specific objectives of the project are to (1) conduct an assessment of resources that currently exist which address or may potentially address the needs of unrepresented litigants in Arkansas; (2) determine which additional resources are most needed to address the needs of unrepresented litigants; and (3) prepare a plan for the development and sustainability of those resources.

“This study is a necessary step toward addressing a huge problem for low-income Arkansans and for our courts,” said Johnson.  “When those who can’t afford attorneys are left to try to navigate the legal system on their own, justice is not served.”

A 2011 pilot study conducted by the Commission through the Clinton School of Public Service suggests that as many as 90 to 95% of cases involving family law, consumer protection, and guardianships and small estates may have at least one unrepresented party.

AATJ Foundation Board Member Receives 2012 Equal Justice Distinguished Service Award

Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation Board Member Lori Chumbler is the 2012 recipient of the Arkansas Bar Association’s Equal Justice Distinguished Service Award, the Association announced earlier this month.  The award is given each year in recognition of commitment to and participation in equal justice program for the poor, including pro bono efforts through legal services programs.

Chumbler is Associate General Counsel for Walmart, where she coordinates the Walmart Legal Department pro bono program. In that role, she spearheaded the creation of a medical-legal partnership (MLP) that was the first in the nation to include a corporate legal department as a partner.  The 142-attorney legal department has partnered with Arkansas Children’s Hospital and the state’s two nonprofit legal service providers, the Center for Arkansas Legal Services and Legal Aid of Arkansas, to provide free legal assistance to families with sick children facing issues related to Medicaid coverage.  As a part of this, Ms. Chumbler also currently manages Walmart’s efforts to create a national collaborative network of MLPs at children’s hospitals across the country.

In addition to her leadership on the MLP effort, Chumbler has devoted her talents to the service of Legal Aid of Arkansas, where she is a board member and pro bono volunteer for LAA’s Equal Access to Justice Panel.  This past year, she handled two pro bono cases through the panel.  Chumbler also serves as a board member of the Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation, which works to provide financial support for legal services for the poor and other access-to-justice-related initiatives in Arkansas, and as a member of the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission’s Pro Bono Committee.

A cum laude graduate of the University of Arkansas, Lori Chumbler earned her B.A. in History in 1990.  She went on to attend Drake University Law School, where she graduated with honors in 1993. She was admitted to the Arkansas Bar in August of that year. After law school, Chumbler served as a deputy prosecuting attorney in Arkansas’ Nineteenth Judicial District.  From 1996 to 2006, Chumbler worked as a law clerk for the Honorable Justice Donald L. Corbin of the Arkansas Supreme Court.  She joined the Walmart Legal Department in 2006.

Chumbler is currently Associate General Counsel for Walmart and serves on the Legal Administration and External Relations team.  She serves as coordinator for Walmart’s pro bono medical-legal partnership (MLP) project and counsel to the Walmart Foundation.

Chumbler was recently honored by the American Bar Association as the 2012 recipient of its Outstanding Pro Bono Advocacy in Medical-Legal Partnerships Award.

Arkansas Access to Justice Co-Sponsors Report on Evolving Role of Law Libraries

The Arkansas Access to Justice Commission is among a group of co-sponsors of a report recently released by Zorza & Associates on the evolving role that law libraries play in improving access to the legal system for unrepresented individuals.  The report, issued in late April, urges law libraries to consider broadening their missions to more proactively address the reality of the growing number of unrepresented persons who go to law libraries seeking information and assistance.  The report identifies best practices already being employed by law libraries that have begun to embrace this role.

“Law libraries are a huge untapped resource with massive potential to increase access to legal information and assistance for people without lawyers,” said Richard Zorza, who researched and authored the report.  “Because they have a long tradition of providing reference information to patrons, those law libraries that adapt to play a more significant role in access to justice efforts will find themselves at the core of a vibrant and critical system.  Those that fail to rise to the challenge may find themselves doomed to irrelevance by changes in technology, constituencies, funding pressures and the law and its institutions.”

Arkansas Access to Justice to Receive $2 Million from Consumer Protection Settlement Proceeds

The Arkansas Access to Justice Commission will receive $2 million as part of a multi-state settlement with five of the country’s largest banks over allegations related to abuses in the mortgage finance industry.

The Arkansas Attorney General’s office announced the news on Thursday, and funds distributed to the Commission will be used to provide access to civil justice for Arkansans affected by the mortgage crisis.

“The Arkansas Access to Justice Commission helps to provide essential legal assistance to low-income Arkansans,” Attorney General Dustin McDaniel said. “Many consumers who were affected by the mortgage crisis could not afford the legal help which may have kept them in their homes. All Arkansans deserve to have access to our legal system when they need it. Our office is glad to direct these funds to a state commission that offers a critical service to the people of Arkansas.”

According to RealtyTrac, Inc., 3,360 Arkansas homes are currently in foreclosure. For low-income families facing foreclosure, their only option for getting direct legal representation is through one of the state’s two nonprofit legal aid providers: Center for Arkansas Legal Services or Legal Aid of Arkansas.

However, recent drastic cuts in state and federal funding are forcing CALS and LAA to lay off staff and cut services to the poor people they serve. Those programs currently turn away nearly half of the clients who call for help and qualify for services.

“This announcement could not have come at a more critical time,” Amy Johnson, Executive Director of the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission, said. “Legal aid providers are so strapped for resources that it’s difficult to give priority to matters other than those where a client’s health or safety are in immediate danger. These funds will give us the resources to address an area of need that can prevent other legal problems from happening.”

The Commission will be working with CALS and LAA to develop programs geared toward helping Arkansas consumers with legal issues related to the mortgage crisis.

The Arkansas Access to Justice Commission and its sister nonprofit organization, the Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation, work to provide equal access to justice in civil cases to all Arkansans. The Commission’s major projects include educating the public about poverty in Arkansas, recruiting pro bono attorneys, supporting courts and self-represented individuals, and soliciting contributions for legal aid. Learn more at www.arkansasjustice.org. 

Legal Aid of Arkansas and the Center for Arkansas Legal Services are nonprofit organizations that provide free legal services to low-income Arkansans with civil legal problems, including orders of protection for domestic abuse victims, uncontested guardianships of minors, consumer issues and public housing. With 17 offices staffed by 45 attorneys throughout the state, plus a volunteer pool of about 1,500 attorneys, legal aid services benefited more than 30,000 low-income people and the elderly with their critical legal needs in 2010. However, more than 555,000 were eligible for legal aid in 2010, and thousands of those Arkansans in need were turned away due to lack of resources. Learn more at www.arlegalservices.org.

Shane Bridgforth Named Jefferson County Pro Bono Attorney of the Year

Attorney and Pine Bluff native William McShane “Shane” Bridgforth has been selected the 2011 Jefferson County VOCALS Pro Bono Attorney of the Year, according to VOCALS Pro Bono Coordinator Donna Ramsey.  The Volunteer Organization for the Center for Arkansas Legal Services awards the honor each year to an attorney who demonstrates outstanding commitment to providing pro bono service to low-income residents of the Jefferson County.  “Shane is always ready to step in and assist our clients in settling their legal matters,” said Ramsey.  “He is a great asset to our VOCALS panel.”

Bridgforth, who is a partner at Ramsay, Bridgforth, Robinson & Raley, has handled a total of 41 VOCALS cases over the course of his legal career.  His clients—none of whom had the financial resources to hire a private attorney—have included domestic violence victims and non-parental caregivers of young children.

“I have always believed in equal justice for all people and that people in our community should have access to the assistance of an attorney in important legal matters regardless of their economic status,” said Bridgforth.  “It is a great honor to have been selected the 2011 VOCALS Attorney of the Year for Jefferson County.”

“The volunteer work that Mr. Bridgforth has consistently contributed provides critical legal assistance to low-income residents of Jefferson County,” said Jean Carter, Executive Director of the Center for Arkansas Legal Services.  “Pro bono service is now more important than ever in Arkansas due to both the current economic crisis and recent federal and state budget cuts.”

Bridgforth is a 1990 graduate of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Law, where he was a member of Phi Delta Phi and served on the moot court team.  He is a member of the Jefferson County, Arkansas Bar, and American Bar Associations, and currently serves on the Arkansas Supreme Court on Model Jury Instructions—Civil.  He is Vice President of the Board of Directors of the Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation.

Mr. Bridgforth has previously served on the Arkansas Bar Association’s House of Delegates and Executive Council, as well as the board of directors for the Center for Arkansas Legal Services.  He has served on other community organization boards and committees, including the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, the Pine Bluff Child Center, the Economic Development Alliance of Jefferson County, and the Greater Pine Bluff Chamber of Commerce.

Arkansas Celebrates National Pro Bono Week 2011

Arkansas attorneys and law students will celebrate National Pro Bono Week beginning October 24, 2011, with a series of events that will include the provision of free legal services to first responders.

The celebration is a coordinated national effort to meet the ever-growing needs of this country’s most vulnerable citizens. Events throughout the week will encourage and support local efforts to expand the delivery of pro bono legal services and serve to showcase the great difference that pro bono attorneys make to the nation, its system of justice, its communities, and most of all, to the clients they serve.

Event highlights in Arkansas include:

Monday, October 24 – Proclamations Recognizing Importance of Pro Bono Service 
Governor Mike Beebe, Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, and Fayetteville Mayor Lioneld Jordan will issue proclamations recognizing the important role that Arkansas pro bono attorneys play in ensuring that low-income Arkansans have access to civil justice.

Tuesday, October 25 – Pro Bono Luncheon in Northwest Arkansas
Presidents of the Benton and Washington County Bar associations, along with 2011 Legal Aid Outstanding Service Award winner Eva Madison, will speak at a luncheon hosted in the E.J. Ball Courtroom at the University of Arkansas School of Law.

Wednesday, October 26 – Free Lawyers for First Responders in Northwest Arkansas
Volunteer attorneys will be available to prepare simple wills, advance directives, and powers of attorney for health care and financial matters to first responders in northwest Arkansas, including firefighters, police officers, and emergency health care workers. This is a free service provided by Arkansas lawyers from multiple organizations, law firms, bar associations and the University of Arkansas School of Law.

Thursday, October 27 – Free Lawyers for First Responders in Central Arkansas
Following issuance of a proclamation from Attorney General Dustin McDaniel recognizing the importance of pro bono service, volunteer attorneys will be available to prepare simple wills, advance directives, and powers of attorney for health care and financial matters to first responders in central Arkansas. This is a free service provided by Arkansas lawyers from multiple organizations, law firms, bar associations and UALR Bowen School of Law.

Friday, October 28 – Just Jeans
Law firms, corporate legal departments, government legal offices, judicial offices, and law schools are encouraged to participate in the Just Jeans event by observing a casual Friday on October 28, 2011, with participants making a minimum suggested contribution of $5.  Contributions collected will go to the Arkansas Access to Justice Foundation to support efforts to increase the financial and pro bono volunteer resources available to our state’s two legal aid providers. This will, in turn, help low-income Arkansans, including domestic violence victims, children, and senior citizens, access the legal services they need.

Saturday, October 29 – iProBono
Arkansas pro bono attorneys will be able to download, free of charge, the first Pro Bono mobile service application through iTunes. Through this app, registered Arkansas pro bono attorneys will be able to accept cases representing low-income Arkansans based on legal topic, county, or by other categories with their iPhones. Two Arkansas web and software development companies, LogiCurrent and Path Designs, are providing free development services for this innovative project.

Clinton School Student Completes Study on Self-Represented Litigation in Arkansas

Clinton School student Chanley Painter recently partnered with the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission to examine the prevalence and impact of self-representation in Arkansas civil courts.

The project involved gathering and analyzing data from county courthouses and developing and conducting a state-wide survey of Arkansas circuit court judges, culminating in a detailed final report describing the methodology and research findings.

“I am very excited about sharing this work with our stakeholders,” said Amy Johnson, Executive Director of the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission, “and I am hopeful that this will lay the groundwork for future research that will aid the Commission in identifying and addressing the civil legal needs that are going unmet.”

Arkansas Children’s Hospital Medical-Legal Partnership Launches

June 17, 2011 – A press conference at Arkansas Children’s Hospital today announced the kick-off of a Medical-Legal Partnership between Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH), Wal-Mart, Arkansas’s legal aid providers, and members of the Arkansas Legal Community. Speakers included Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck, and Jeff Gearhart, VP and Senior Legal Councel for Wal-Mart. The press conference began at 10am, with the first case intakes beginning at 11:30am.

Arkansas Supreme Court Issues Order Permitting Out-of-State Attorneys to Provide Pro Bono Services in Arkansas

In response to a petition that the Arkansas Access to Justice Commission filed in February, the Arkansas Supreme Court has handed down an order that permits attorneys licensed in other states who are not admitted in Arkansas to provide pro bono services to low-income clients under the sponsorship of a legal aid services provider that serves Arkansas clients. According to the Commission Executive Director Amy Johnson, nearly half of all clients who qualify for legal aid and have legal problems are turned away each year because the staff and volunteer resources are insufficient to meet the demand.  “The current need is so great that any increase in the number of attorneys available to provide pro bono services will help,” she said.

According to the Court’s opinion, this practice “will give in-house, corporate counsel the opportunity to volunteer in the community and will make justice more accessible to low-income Arkansans.”  Johnson says the order applies not only to corporate in-house counsel, but also to other non-admitted attorneys who reside in Arkansas and want to volunteer, but otherwise have no reason to seek admission to the Arkansas bar.  The Center for Arkansas Legal Services, Legal Aid of Arkansas, and Lone Star Legal Aid were all three named in the order as entities approved to sponsor non-admitted pro bono attorneys.  The change, effective immediately, is integrated into a newly-revised Administrative Order Number 15.

Retiring ALSP Director Reflects on Former Commission Chair Goldner’s Tenure

Henry Ward Beecher was a leading Congregational minister and author who, like his sister Harriet Beecher Stowe, was a fervent abolitionist. He possessed a beautiful globe depicting the various constellations and stars of the heavens. Robert Ingersoll visited Beecher one day and asked “who made it?” Beecher, seeking the opportunity to attack his friends agnosticism responded, “Why, nobody made it; it just happened.”

In some ways it looks to an outsider that the Access to Justice Commission “just happened.” But those of us who know better understand that it was the guiding hand, gentle persuasion, and creative leadership of Chuck Goldner that made it happen. Dean Goldner was elected chair of the Commission at its first meeting in October 2004, and led the Commission until August 2010. This period has been a remarkable time of organization and performance. Initially there was no structure, funding or plan for the new Commission beyond the mission “to provide equal access to justice in civil cases to all Arkansans.” He led the other commissioners in developing priorities of what needed to be accomplished in a first tier of activities and what items could wait for attention. Early on the concept of access to justice as a three legged stool developed which led to the creation of three committees designed to strengthen each of those legs: pro bono, pro se, and legal aid. Dean Goldner insured that information was brought forth which gave the Commission an understanding of the status of factors impacting legal aid at the moment including demographics, funding, staffing, client services, and the efforts of other access to justice groups throughout the country.

By early 2005 the Commission was developing a plan to implement town hall meetings throughout the state as a way of both gathering information and educating the community at large about access to justice. Dean Goldner chaired these sessions which were hosted by the Member of Congress in each of the four Congressional Districts. The meetings heard testimony from clients, lawyers, judges, service agencies, and legal aid advocates all of which became part of the strategic plan for the Commission during its initial three years.

Working in parallel the Commission sought private funding and produced a DVD which told the story of legal aid and the importance of securing justice for low income Arkansans. “Forging the Road to Civil Justice” became an educational tool of the commissioners in public meetings which elevated knowledge about the needs and impacts of civil legal aid in the state.

Another important part of the initial information gathering was a survey of circuit judges and circuit clerks to determine how pro se litigants affected the courts. From that survey, and a follow up three years later, the Commission learned of ways it might help to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the courts when it came to pro se litigation. On line forms were developed, informational brochures were produced, and judges and clerks were informed of what was acceptable when working with pro se litigants. Court processes dramatically improved with the advent of these materials.

It was Dean Goldner’s shaping and timing of all this incoming information that began to bear fruit in the work of the Commission. He shepherded a Model 6.1 Rule change through the Bar Association and to the Supreme Court for an important change in how attorney’s in the state consider and report pro bono service. He led the effort in applying the information gathered in town hall meetings, circuit judge surveys and the three committees of the Commission toward legislative proposals which over the course of his tenure as Chair would annually bring $855,000 in revenue to the two legal aid operations in the state. In his concern for both education and legislation he fostered the development of a website for the Commission and its work and another specifically aimed at legislators which provided them information on their constituents and the impact of civil legal aid in their districts.

Another aspect of an effective leader is to periodically take stock of the organization and where it is heading. Accordingly, in 2007 Dean Goldner arranged for a national leader in the access to justice movement to lead a strategic review of the Commission and its work with a view toward the future. That day long meeting led to the establishment of ten priorities and the expansion of committee activities with the addition of committees for education and legislation. These changes subsequently led to two important achievements which were executed in 2009.

One was the first statewide private bar and corporate campaign for funding legal aid, The Promise of Justice Campaign. It netted over $300,000 to fund the work of legal aid in the state and more importantly got the case for increasing access to justice to a broader audience than ever before.

The second activity was the state’s first Promise of Justice Conference which focused members of the bar and judges on the clients, opportunities and barriers to the expansion of access to justice for low income Arkansans. The Conference heard from national luminaries in the American Bar Association, and the judiciary.

The capstone achievement of Dean Goldner’s leadership of the Commission came in 2010 with the establishment of the Access to Justice Foundation designed to receive and distribute funds from the Commission to the two legal aid organizations. It is indeed a genuine foundation for the future growth and development of access to justice in Arkansas.

So when future justice community leaders and ordinary citizens look at access to justice in Arkansas; they will know that it did not “just happen.” Rather, it was shaped and led by the vision and tenacity of a devoted civic leader – Chuck Goldner.

–By Ron Lanoue