Legal aid is a hot topic as austerity budgets have cut funding in many jurisdictions. Governments, legal service organizations and pro bono work by lawyers all have a role to play in ensuring access to justice for all. Our work in the United Kingdom and United States illustrates our commitment to doing our part.
Successful intervention at UK Supreme Court assists innocence projects appeals
Partners John Reynolds and Robert Wheal in London led a team of White & Case lawyers to intervene pro bono in a case before the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom that affirmed a role for investigations into alleged miscarriages of justice by innocence projects and improved the rules for access to evidence after a failed appeal to enable such investigations to occur.
Access to evidence is at the heart of the principle of access to justice.
John Reynolds, Partner,
Head of London Litigation
The Supreme Court held that the police and prosecution ought to assist whenever a real prospect exists that further inquiry may reveal something that affects whether an individual was wrongly convicted. We represented three organizations—Innocence Network UK, JUSTICE and the Criminal Appeal Lawyers Association—in the case of Kevin Nunn v. Chief Constable of the Suffolk Constabulary before the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom.
Kevin Nunn was convicted of murder in 2006, and his legal team believes that advancements in forensic science since that time could prove Nunn’s innocence. In 2011, the team applied to the Suffolk Constabulary for access to the material evidence in his case but was refused by them and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Nunn’s team sought judicial review of the decision and applied to the Divisional Court, arguing that the CPS and police had a duty of disclosure that continued post-conviction.
The Divisional Court refused the application, stating that the CPS and police had no duty to disclose evidence or give access to evidence for testing, unless an applicant could show prospectively that retesting would cast doubt on the conviction. This created a difficult situation for applicants, as it required them to demonstrate in advance the very information they were seeking disclosure in order to find.
Reynolds characterized the importance of the case: "Access to evidence is at the heart of the principle of access to justice, whether in civil or criminal law, and at all stages of the legal process. It is essential in the effective representation of alleged victims of wrongful convictions."
The ruling brought clarity to an important issue in UK criminal law.
The Legal Aid Society: A legacy to honor
White & Case partner Orison Marden was known as "Mr. Legal Aid" for his decades-long stewardship of The Legal Aid Society in New York. He served on the board for 27 years, including as chairman from 1970 until his death in 1975. We remain strong supporters of this critical organization—the oldest and largest private, nonprofit legal services organization in the United States—which provides legal representation to low-income New Yorkers. The Society handles 300,000 individual cases and matters annually and provides a comprehensive range of both criminal and civil legal services. Unlike the criminal and juvenile practices, which are constitutionally mandated and supported by the government, the civil practice relies heavily on private contributions as well as pro bono legal services.
Over the past five years, more than 240 White & Case lawyers and legal staff have worked on 80 matters, totaling close to 18,000 hours of pro bono service for The Legal Aid Society. Our work includes criminal appeals, immigration, benefits, trust and estates and other civil matters. White & Case partner David Hille, who serves on the Society’s Board of Directors, noted, "We have immense respect and admiration for the people at The Legal Aid Society and the work that they do. It is a privilege to work shoulder to shoulder with the Society's fine lawyers."
Over five years, more than 240 White & Case lawyers and legal staff worked on 80 matters, totaling close to 18,000 hours of pro bono service for the Legal Aid Society
We also provide lawyers for the Society's general counsel and criminal defense externship programs—21 White & Case associates have participated since the program’s inception in 2007. Associate Joshua Elmore recently participated in the criminal defense externship program. Externs advise on misdemeanor cases alongside the Society's criminal defense lawyers and may also serve as part of litigation teams on complex felony matters. Elmore said about the experience, "Gaining the trust of clients has at times been challenging, especially when bars separate you from the client at the first encounter. The work has been incredibly meaningful, and I am grateful for this opportunity to help ensure that our clients’ most basic rights are protected."
US: CLEMENCY PROJECT
Lawyers in all five of our US offices are participating in the Clemency Project, which provides pro bono assistance to federal prisoners who likely would have received a shorter sentence if sentenced under current law and guidelines. The project focuses on prisoners who have a good prison record, no significant ties to organized crime, a nonviolent history and who are currently serving very lengthy sentences for relatively low-level offenses. To date, approximately 20,000 prisoners have applied to have their sentences reconsidered. Formed in response to a call from the Department of Justice for the legal profession to provide pro bono assistance in such cases, the Clemency Project is a collaboration of lawyers and advocates including the Federal Defenders, the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Bar Association and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Participating lawyers are trained to screen prisoners against the selection criteria and assist those who meet the criteria to file a clemency petition.
NEW YORK: VICTIMS OF DOMESTIC VIOLENCE
Her Justice is an NGO that provides free legal help in family, divorce and immigration law to low-income women living in New York City, most of whom are survivors of domestic violence. Since our relationship with Her Justice began in 2000, our lawyers have represented 400 clients in 600 family law cases. We have also sent 48 lawyers on secondment to Her Justice—two are now partners.
LONDON: LEGAL CLINICS
We see up to 48 unrepresented litigants at the Royal Courts of Justice legal clinic each year and approximately 30 per year at a clinic our lawyers started and run at Whitechapel Mission in one of the poorest sections of London.
LOS ANGELES: CHILDREN IN FOSTER CARE AND WITH SPECIAL NEEDS
Since 2007, our lawyers in Los Angeles have handled 21 cases referred by the Alliance for Children's Rights on behalf of foster children living in the greater Los Angeles area. We have finalized ten adoptions for children in foster care and have successfully received increased funding for nine special needs children in care.
MIAMI: JUVENILE IMMIGRANTS
For the past five years, our Miami office has accepted juvenile immigration case referrals from Americans for Immigrant Justice and the Cuban American Bar Association’s (CABA's) Unaccompanied Immigrant Minors Project. Our lawyers appear in Miami's busy Immigration Court to conduct intake interviews of unrepresented children on the juvenile immigration docket. We then appear as "friends of the court" to guide the children through the hearing process. Lawyers in both our disputes and corporate practice groups received training from CABA, and our disputes lawyers partner with corporate lawyers to represent these children.
Raising bar dues for legal aid argued at Florida Supreme Court
Since 2008, funds raised from interest on lawyers' trust accounts—the primary method for funding legal services in Florida—has dropped by 88 percent, creating a crisis in legal aid funding in the state. Miami White & Case partner Raoul Cantero, assisted by a team of associates from our Miami office, argued before the Florida Supreme Court on behalf of 522 active members of the bar who signed a petition to push for an increase in Florida Bar member dues as a temporary stopgap measure to help address the shortfall. The Court was intrigued with the proposal, but said it would not solve the legal aid crisis. Cantero argued that while a potential US$100 per member increase in bar dues could not be the only solution, it would alleviate the situation while the state worked on a permanent solution for the severe underfunding of legal aid organizations.
"We’re not going to fix everything, but as lawyers we need to take the lead," Cantero said. "We need to tell the people that we care and we need to do more."