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MCBA President’s Message: A Legacy of Accessing Justice

Neil J. Rowe

Neil J. Rowe

I like Throwback Thursdays. For those of you not familiar with the experience, it is an outgrowth of a social media trend of posting old pictures of friends, events or oneself. It is a great way to reminisce an era that has passed.

The Monroe County Bar Association has a long history of commitment to the Access to Justice for indigents, and I thought it timely to look back at how the past efforts of our members continue to help our legal community.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 to mobilize the nation’s resources to combat poverty in the United States. Among other issues, this “war on poverty” recognized the need to provide equal access to the system of justice for individuals who seek redress of grievances.

In 1968, the MCBA took on the challenge, and the Monroe County Bar Legal Assistance Corporation was formed to provide legal assistance to indigent persons in civil and administrative proceedings. As the program matured, it spun off in 1972 as the Monroe County Legal Assistance Corporation. Eventually, MCLAC merged with Chemung County Neighborhood Legal Services and Southern Tier Legal Services, and in 2004 was re-created as Legal Assistance of Western NY.

Yet MCLAC continues, now as LawNY’s Monroe County Legal Assistance Center, to provide assistance in multiple areas of law, including housing, employment rights, public benefits and senior services.

In response to the bail reform movement, in 1970 the Monroe County Bar Association Pre-Trial Release Program was introduced to the criminal justice system. Originally developed as a release on recognizance program, it took only a few years before the program expanded its services. Commonly referred to now as Pre-Trial Services or the Pre-Trial Services Corporation, the program continues its efforts to obtain the quickest and least restrictive form of release for defendant, and has become an integral part of the criminal justice system.

In 1977, the MCBA turned its attention to coordinating a pro bono project to supplement the efforts of MCLAC and the Legal Aid Society of Rochester. In June 1981, the MCBA became one of only five bar associations nationwide to receive a demonstration grant from the Legal Services Corporation to develop a project to increase private attorney participation in the delivery of civil legal services to low-income clients.

The LSC grant was matched by contributions from the Foundation of the Monroe County Bar, law firms and individual lawyers. This Volunteer Legal Services Project soon became its own entity, and has been continually recognized by the American and the New York State Bar Associations as a leader in the pro bono movement.

Subsequently, in order to identify gaps and coordinate services for the underrepresented, the MCBA established its President’s Commission on Access to Justice. Commission members include representatives from the Empire Justice Center, the Legal Aid Society of Rochester, LawNY, the Worker Justice Center, Pre-Trial Services, the Federal Pro Se Office, VLSP, the Public Defender’s Office, the Conflict Defender’s Office, and others interested in the delivery of legal services.

The commission, chaired this year by Diana Irizarry, serves to consider, organize and implement methods for enhancing access by low income people to the legal system. One such initiative being introduced this fall is the Re-Entry Project, which will help individuals obtain certificates of relief from civil disabilities.

The Re-Entry Project, a collaboration of VLSP, LawNY and the Judicial Process Commission, will hold clinics on a regular schedule at the JPC. For those of you reading The Daily Record with your breakfast, the first training session for volunteers begins at 9 this morning at Monroe County Bar Association’s Rubin Center for Education.

At the turn of this century, the Monroe County Bar Association and the Foundation of the Monroe County Bar again joined with the legal service providers to help improve the delivery of civil legal services to the indigent. To this end, the Partnership for Equal Justice raised over $2.4 million to pay for the colocation of the Empire Justice, the Legal Aid Society of Rochester, LawNY, and VLSP at the Telesca Center for Justice.

This effort has provided better services to individuals seeking and receiving legal assistance; saved the providers significant costs through below market rents, as well as shared space and services, which allowed them to employ more staff and thus, represent more clients; promoted pro bono participation by private attorneys in our community; and allowed the legal services providers to obtain additional funding to expand services because of their ability to collectively provide services in the full range of areas of law.

Continuing the commitment to accessing justice, this past spring our foundation president, Bruce Lawrence, announced the establishment of The Legacy Society for the Telesca Center for Justice. The Legacy Society is a cooperative effort by the Telesca Center partners both to encourage and to provide an opportunity for attorneys and friends to support legal service for the needy through a legacy gift. The Legacy Society will be administered by a cabinet of Telesca Center leaders, co-chaired by Foundation Past President Jill Cicero and MCBA Past President Mike Wolford.

As we look back, we can take great pride in our legal community’s commitment to the provision of legal services to underserved individuals. However, it is as important to assure these services will remain available for future generations, and the Legacy Society for the Telesca Center for Justice will be an important part of that effort.

Neil J. Rowe is president of the Monroe County Bar Association, adjunct instructor of management at Keuka College, and principal of NJ Rowe Consulting Services. He can be reached at njr@rochester.rr.com.