Public Policy

Equal Justice Means Equal Access to Justice for All

By James P. DeAngelo

Despite pop culture's depictions of lawyers as fast-talking, Armani-wearing, by-the-hour charging predators, many good-hearted lawyers are performing extraordinary public service magic all over Central Pennsylvania.

We are often the friend behind the victimized, walking in quietly and with the competence needed, when the whole world seems to have walked out.

While American citizens are all equal under the law, the truth is that when the real world takes over, if you do not have the money for an attorney, your rights may not be fairly protected. 

Both the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's Rules of Professional Conduct and our own sense of moral obligation guide and inspire our pro bono work, which in Latin, means "for the public good." 

Many lawyers have an unbridled passion for applying their law degree to right a wrong or advance a worthy cause, waiving the fee to work for principle, not pay.  Often, there is little glamour, little recognition, but always, there is enormous gratification.

Our recent pro bono work in the Harrisburg area ensured that:

•  A tenant was not evicted into the streets; that an abused wife could spend precious time with her children;
•  A veteran had help filing or appealing a disability claim;
•  A poor client being sued for an injury that was beyond his control was protected; that the victim of a bait-and-switch scam was compensated;
•  A single parent wrongfully fired was helped.  
•  We also  aided the underprivileged in preparing their taxes and answered countless questions for nonprofits, the aged, military families, and the poor.

In Central Pennsylvania, we also are fortunate to have many civil legal aid attorneys working for substandard compensation to provide representation to those living in poverty. 

MidPenn Legal Services is our primary civil legal aid provider.  It provides a legal safety net, free of charge, for those who would otherwise fall through the cracks.  MidPenn Legal Services provides its free civil legal services to those living in poverty and to survivors of domestic violence. 

(It does not defend those accused of criminal activity. That's the public defender's office.)

If a person loses a child, a job, a home, they have a right to a lawyer, but not a free lawyer. 

If they have no funds, that right is moot.  And regrettably, this important human service, civil legal aid, is terribly underfunded.

In my volunteer pro bono work, I have seen first-hand what happens when someone has serious legal problems and cannot afford representation. 

I encourage my fellow attorneys to find more, and more extensive, ways to help the less fortunate.

I also encourage the general public to take a moment and learn about the pro bono and civil legal aid work being done in our community. And I encourage the needy, and my fellow neighbors to the needy, to explore all avenues available to them.

You can read about some of the cases handled by MidPenn Legal Services in its annual reports available online at http://www.midpenn.org/ and about the work done by legal aid throughout the Commonwealth at http://www.palegalaid.net/

I encourage all citizens to ask their legislators to fully fund civil legal aid throughout our Commonwealth.

I hope you'll join area attorneys in helping those who desperately need our support.  A poor person facing a legal problem without counsel is not justice. 

James P. DeAngelo is the co-chair of the Litigation Practice Group at McNees Wallace & Nurick.  He is president-elect of PA Legal Aid Network, president of Mid Penn Legal Services and president of the Community Justice Project. Jim can be reached at (717) 237-5470 or jdeangelo@mwn.com.


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