|Her Justice Policy Pro Bono: A New Opportuinty for Law Firms|
‘Policy pro bono’ represents a new set of opportunities to work with Her Justice. Policy pro bono projects can involve writing briefs and letters or conducting research to support advocacy for court and law reform on issues that affect Her Justice clients. Our policy priorities are informed by challenges we see across client experiences. Partner law firms that represent individuals pro bono are often interested in addressing the broader issues that arise out of their cases. This interest is especially strong in firms that develop in-house expertise in a particular subject area after having taken several cases in the same area, and begin to identify for themselves areas where individuals simply cannot get the justice they deserve due to a broken court system. Linking policy reform to issues in client representation helps develop better solutions for all.
Law firms are well-positioned to create briefs and original research on essential issues when legal services organizations may not have the capacity to step away from individual cases. Her Justice is a major provider of advice and pro bono representation to clients seeking uncontested divorces. Because we serve hundreds of women each year in this capacity, we have been able to identify ways to make the process more streamlined and accessible, which would especially benefit low-income litigants who do not have pro bono representation. For example, the packet of papers needed to file for an uncontested divorce is onerous and many pages long, even though it is expected that individuals will fill these out on their own. Her Justice engaged the law firm of Kramer Levin to research and write a memo about the legal basis for this requirement in uncontested divorce cases to support our advocacy around streamlining the process. Kramer Levin’s analysis helped prepare us for conversations with court administrators about changing the divorce process to improve access to justice for our clients, including those who represent themselves.
A strong policy paper or letter, backed up by the individual cases handled by nonprofits like Her Justice, can result in significant changes in the legal system. In 2015, Her Justice held a series of focus groups in which private attorneys shared their perspectives on representing clients pro bono in family and matrimonial cases. The groups identified various operational challenges – for example, delays and lack of clarity around court rules and procedure – that affect those who work within the system and those seeking justice. Based on these discussions, Her Justice sent a letter to New York State court administrators, which law firm White & Case took the lead in drafting, with recommendations for improvements in the experience of all who practice and appear in the Family Courts, and to strengthen the role of pro bono legal services in Family Court. This initiative has informed further advocacy around Family Court reform, particularly in the area of child support, where delays in case resolution and barriers to enforcing child support orders cause great harm to women living in poverty in New York City seeking legal help.
Her Justice has engaged partner law firms to conduct research that directly supports our advocacy around state and local legislation. Her Justice, along with other advocates in New York that provide advice and representation to litigants in custody cases, have become concerned about the availability to litigants and/or their attorneys of court-ordered reports based on “forensic examinations” – mental health evaluations done by a psychiatrist or psychologist. These reports can have significant weight in a court’s determination of custody, but litigants and/or their attorneys do not have full access to them before trial. The consequences of these limitations can be dire, especially when forensic experts fail to properly identify and analyze domestic violence. Based on conversations with New York State legislators and staff, we asked attorneys at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer to research other states’ approach to providing access to forensic reports to strengthen our advocacy in New York.
As Her Justice formulates and implements a strategic plan for its future growth and impact, advancing and broadening our policy work is among our key objectives. The opportunity to shed light on systemic issues that are revealed in our clients’ cases gives Her Justice a uniquely strong voice in reform efforts regarding access to legal solutions and economic justice for women living in poverty in New York City.