Letter From The Chancellor Of The Philadelphia Bar Association

2013-06-19 15:28


To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

On behalf of the 13,000 members of the Philadelphia Bar Association, I am pleased to have the opportunity to share our vital work with you in this month’s edition, which focuses on Pennsylvania as well as the critical importance of pro bono service.

Chartered in 1802, the Philadelphia Bar Association is the oldest association of lawyers in the United States. Our Bar has proudly served as a national model in the delivery of pro bono legal services. Philadelphia lawyers handle 50,000 cases a year for free, on behalf of people struggling with poverty, abuse and discrimination. We remain committed to serving the public interest through pro bono service and our mission of promoting justice, professional excellence and respect for the rule of law.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the theme of this month’s edition also serves as a reminder that the promise of Gideon remains largely unfulfilled because of dramatic underfunding of the indigent defense system. Few Gideon-type rights have been recognized on the civil side, where basic human needs such as shelter, safety, health, sustenance and child custody are at stake.

The demand has surged for civil legal representation on behalf of the poor, whose ranks have swelled following one of the worst recessions in the nation’s history. Those needs have been largely unmet due to a “perfect storm” of sustained, repeated and severe cuts in federal and state funding. In addition, due to the current economic environment, fundraising efforts are more difficult. As a result, due to lack of funding, there have been increased layoffs of legal aid staff as well as office closings.

Recently, the Philadelphia Bar Association received a grant from the American Bar Association Fund for Justice and Education as part of the ABA’s Access to Justice Commission Expansion Project. The funding is being used to help support the formation and the ongoing efforts of a broad-based statewide Civil Legal Justice Coalition, which includes the Philadelphia Bar Association, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, Allegheny County Bar Association and other key stakeholders, to work collaboratively on improving access to justice.This includes a series of statewide public hearings that are generating greater public awareness and understanding of the civil justice gap crisis, while identifying recommendations for various solutions to close the justice gap.

We’re pleased to have the support of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille in this effort, who serves as the Honorary Chair of the Coalition.  Likewise, we are grateful to Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Stewart J. Greenleaf for creating a forum for public hearings around the Commonwealth in order for these vital issues to be discussed.

Because of these important hearings, our state lawmakers and the public are learning much more about the difficulties many face in achieving access to civil justice where basic human needs are at stake. They are hearing a broad range of perspectives on the consequences of the inability to retain counsel when families cannot afford an attorney due to unemployment or loss of jobs.  This economic disruption can result in a breakdown of family integrity, eviction or loss of health insurance. Our goals also include highlighting the broader impact that the lack of counsel in such instances has on communities and economies – both locally and statewide.

We hope to educate the broadest possible audience about these issues, and the social and economic benefits of expanding access to civil legal justice to everyone in the community where such basic needs are at stake.

As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Gideon decision, we are delighted to have this support to move forward a statewide effort to build access to justice for all on the civil side.  Fairness and access to justice are essential to preserving public faith in the judicial system as well as, fundamentally, the rule of law.

We invite you to join us as your partner for justice. Please visit the Philadelphia Bar Association’s website at philadelphiabar.org, like us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter (@PhilaBar and @2013Chancellor).  I thank you for this opportunity.


Kathleen D. Wilkinson