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Accessing Justice

On Monday, the City Bar’s Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice presented its Access to Justice Awards to former City Bar President Michael A. Cooper and Fundación Pro Bono of Chile. I had the pleasure of presenting the award to Mike, who has been a mentor and friend from the time I was a junior associate at Sullivan & Cromwell. The day after that, I was proud to represent the City Bar and the City Bar Justice Center by testifying at Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s Hearing on Civil Legal Services at the First Department.

Mike was very much the driving force behind the creation of the Vance Center in 2003, named in honor of another former City Bar president, who was, as Mike so aptly described him, “one of the great lawyers and public servants of our time.” The genesis of the Vance Center can be traced to a 2000 conference on access to justice around the world, hosted by the City Bar when Mike was president and attended by representatives of 14 nations. The following year, Mike, along with the new City Bar President, Evan Davis, traveled to Buenos Aires to continue the work; and the year after that, Mike traveled to Santiago, Chile, where critical mass was reached on this initiative among a group of lawyers who would form Fundacion Pro Bono.

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Joan Vermuelen, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., Pablo V. Guerrero, Michael A. Cooper, Samuel W. Seymour and Elsie Vance at the Vance Center’s Access to Justice Awards on September 27th. Photo: Jun Lee

The following year, the Vance Center was formed. Today, under the leadership of Executive Director Joan Vermeulen, Chair Antonia Stolper and Founding Chair and current Vice-Chair Todd Crider – and in partnership with wonderful groups like Fundación Pro Bono – the Vance Center is doing extraordinary work in sparking the creation of a pro bono ethic around the world. Among its efforts are the Pro Bono Declaration of the Americas, to which more than 400 law firms, lawyers, law societies, legal academics and NGOs are signatories, and the Global Pro Bono Clearinghouse, which matches volunteer attorneys with international cases.

In his acceptance remarks last week, Mike reminded us of the widening justice gap in our own country, saying, “As we contemplate how we can export the pro bono ethic we have so assiduously cultivated during the past several years, we must remember that we can project our vision of a just society abroad only if we keep the beacon lit at home.”This bedrock principle informed my testimony before the Chief Judge’s panel in the First Department last Tuesday. Testimony at the hearing underscored how the Great Recession has taken its toll on civil legal services funding: revenues in the Interest on Lawyers Accounts (IOLA), an important source of funding for legal services, are way down to $7 million, from $32 million in 2008. In my testimony, I highlighted the work of our City Bar Justice Center, pointing out that calls to its hotline have increased 40% in the past few years, and that its bankruptcy, foreclosure and immigration projects have all the work they can handle.

I also attempted to hammer home the difference a lawyer makes in these cases. Access to justice means that nobody should have to go it alone in court. As the Chief Judge noted at the hearing, civil litigation often raises issues of basic human needs, where the assistance of a lawyer means the difference between losing or protecting a litigant’s shelter, entitlements, safety, or job. Why should those rights be vindicated for the wealthy with the help of a lawyer, while those in need must proceed alone? Eliminating that disparity is a social and political challenge, but it falls to our profession to find a solution. With the fine work of our Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, the City Bar has long been stalwart in this effort, and I am proud of our Association’s continuing leadership in this area.

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