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Joe Surkiewicz: Voices for Civil Justice raise profile of civil legal aid

If there’s one thing that people who work in civil legal aid know for sure, it’s that they don’t get any respect. It’s not because of what they do by helping clients get justice. It’s just that outside the legal profession, not many people know anything about civil legal aid.

A new organization in Washington — and with roots in Maryland — is going to change that.

Voices for Civil Justice is a non-partisan communications hub with the mission of raising awareness of the vital role legal aid plays in helping people provide for their health, their livelihoods and their families.

The goal for the new program, which started up earlier this year, is to cast a spotlight in the national media on the work of civil legal aid, with a long-term goal of bolstering its resources.

Voices will also “brand” civil legal aid to overcome the sector’s virtual invisibility in the national media.

“We know that civil legal aid is grossly under-resourced and only meets a small fraction of the legal needs of our clients,” said Voices executive director Martha Bergmark. “We want to bolster resources. Until legal aid is branded, it’s not going to happen. This is a way to get there, whether the resources come from Congress or, say, expanded pro bono.”

Bergmark, the former director of the Mississippi Center for Justice and a former executive at the Legal Services Corp. and the National Legal Aid & Defenders Assoc., explained the role Voices will play in promoting civil legal aid in the national media.

“We’re trying to be strategic, while still throwing stuff at the wall and see what sticks,” she said. “Already, we can see that there’s a necessary capacity piece that we’re filling nationally. If you’re pitching a national story, you’ve got to be there for the national media. It’s very clear we’re not stepping on any toes. It’s been really interesting so far.”

Along with deputy director Elizabeth Arledge, another veteran of LSC, NLADA and other legal services programs (and a former newspaper reporter), Voices will define and strengthen legal aid’s brand identity with key audiences such as policy makers, opinion leaders and donors.

Much of the direction of the new program is based on recent polling that confirmed earlier findings: The general public is largely unaware of the existence of civil legal aid. And that’s not surprising, since legal aid gets very little coverage, except when funding is cut.

“The scattered coverage of state initiatives, like those in Maryland, suggests that a comprehensive narrative of what legal aid is and why it matters hasn’t taken hold,” Bergmark said. “But that lack of visibility can also be a strength in media terms. We can bring journalists and the public fresh, untold stories about a growing, untold crisis threatening democracy.”

The crisis is the ever-decreasing funding for civil legal aid. The good news is that the polling strongly suggests that the general public will be a receptive audience.

“Americans believe it’s critical that they have access to legal expertise to navigate the complexities of the civil legal system,” Bergmark said. “A majority of those polled, when presented with arguments both for and against, said they support increased funding for civil legal aid. In an engaged debate, we win.”

Maryland, she added, is ahead of the curve.

“I met recently with the Maryland Access to Justice Commission’s Public Education Committee that’s chaired by Herb Garten, someone very well known in Maryland and nationally for his commitment to civil legal aid,” said Bergmark, who lives in Takoma Park. “I was pleased to learn that Voices will have such a strong partner in Maryland to collaborate on our media outreach.”

Part of the branding effort is to broaden the definition of “legal aid” beyond federally funded programs and to include the relatively new initiatives of court systems, law schools and others to expand access to civil justice.

“There are well over 500 nonprofits nationally that are fully part of the family of legal programs that serve low-income people, as well as populations like the homeless, children, the elderly, disaster victims, domestic violence victims, etc.,” Bergmark said.

“In addition, innovative court-based services like self-help clinics and on-line access to information and forms are available to everyone,” she said. “The court-based services are an increasingly important component of civil legal aid, and judges are stepping up as key spokespeople.

“Maryland has long been a national leader in civil legal aid,” she continued. “The courts here have historically provided strong leadership, most notably under recently retired Chief Judge Robert Bell. You have such a strong record and such a strong case to make for increased support, that we at Voices are eager to help you get your message out.”

For more information, go to http://voicesforciviljustice.org/.

Joe Surkiewicz is director of communications at the Homeless Persons Representation Project in Baltimore. His email is jsurkiewicz@hprplaw.org.