VIRGINIA ACCESS TO JUSTICE COMMISSION
Annual Report to the Supreme Court of Virginia
The Virginia Access to Justice Commission (“the Commission”) submits this annual report in accordance with the orders entered by the Supreme Court of Virginia on September13, 2013, and November 7, 2019.
I. Meetings and Membership
The Commission’s work in 2020 was severely limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A meeting planned for March 16, 2020, was cancelled due to the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Following a conference call on April 21, 2020, the Leadership Committee decided the Commission should suspend operations temporarily, freeing Commission members and staff to focus on their employers’ and agencies’ responses to circumstances and conditions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. The Commission resumed meetings, virtually, in September, and its Committees recommenced with virtual meetings as well. The full Commission met two times in 2020: September 22,and December 10, 2020.All Commission and Committee meetings have been virtual.
Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons reappointed three members of the Commission to serve three-year terms (from December 1, 2020,until November 30, 2023): Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn, Judge Tonya Henderson-Stith, and Mr. John Whitfield.
II. Initiatives and Accomplishments
A. The Commission’s key accomplishments in 2020include the following:
• Two Court forms have been automated –they can be completed through an electronic “interview” process that poses questions and populates a Court form with information based on the user’s responses –and are available on the VALegalAid.com website. The forms are the tenant’s assertion form (Form DC-429)and the in forma pauperis form for requesting fee waivers (Form CC-1414).
• The Commission approved issuance of a request to the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee(“JEAC”), seeking an opinion as to whether a General District Court can include information about available financial assistance in summonses for unlawful detainers. The General District Court would supply the same information to the plaintiff at the time the unlawful detainers are filed. The request has been filed with JEAC and the Commission is awaiting a final response.
• The Commission developed materials on alternate dispute resolution which were accepted by the District Court Benchbook Committee for inclusion in the 2021 edition of the Benchbook. This represents the first time such detailed information specifically about alternative dispute resolution has been included in the Benchbook.
• The Commission continues to refine its proposal for recognition of pro bono service by Virginia attorneys, including most recently exploring the possibility of publishing in Virginia Lawyer the names of attorneys who have voluntarily reported to the Virginia State Bar pro bono service hours or in-kind financial contributions.
B. Projects postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic:
• In 2019, the Commission approved a project providing for a series of meetings in each of eight regions in the Commonwealth. The meetings were intended to offer an opportunity for the Commission to learn about obstacles to accessing and providing legal services, and about initiatives that have increased access in the various regions. he first meeting was planned for Monday, March 16, 2020, and was scheduled to be held at the University of Richmond in the afternoon following the Commission’s first quarterly meeting of 2020. A detailed agenda and accompanying materials had been prepared, a session moderator secured, and nearly 80 people had registered for the event. Registrants included judges, attorneys, clerks of court, representatives from legal and social services organizations, law librarians, and local elected officials. The Thursday preceding the meeting, Governor Northam declared a state of emergency and the University of Richmond thereafter restricted access to its facilities. Both the Commission meeting and the first regional meeting were cancelled.
In November 2020, the Commission approved a new, complementary project –virtual town halls that will be structured around various justice topics rather than around geographical areas. The Commission still intends to undertake regional, in-person meetings when circumstances allow. Initial planning for the virtual town halls is underway, and the Virginia Law Foundation has generously offered to assist with the meetings by supplying the necessary electronic platform and staff who are expert in its operation.
• The Commission had approved a project for Commission staff to undertake site visits to general district and juvenile and domestic relations district courts to survey court users about their experiences navigating court processes. Staff worked with three students in a Master’s degree program at Virginia Commonwealth University to develop a survey instrument and protocols for administering the survey. The survey instrument was tested in Richmond General District Court on March 10, 2020, and in Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court on March 11, 2020. Several court users were willing to respond to the survey, and when asked about their experience on completion, most reported that the survey was easy to understand and complete. With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, survey implementation became infeasible, and the project has been postponed for the foreseeable future.
• The Commission had approved a project for implementation jointly by the Pro Bono Committee and the Outreach and Education Committee. It proposed to undertake research into Virginia attorney motivations for undertaking pro bono service in order to develop a tailored marketing campaign directed at increasing such service or the amount of financial contributions made in lieu of direct legal service. The Committees are tentatively planning to reinitiate work on this project in January 2021.
• The Commission approved a project involving structured meetings and other communications between the judiciary and the private bar in several circuits/districts to encourage pro bono legal service. A “kick-off” event was held in the 18thCircuit/District in January 2020. Projects are underway in other circuits/districts, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made full implementation impossible.
III. Committee Activities
he Commission continued in 2020to operate (albeit in a more limited way) through its six committees: Access for Self-Represented Litigants (“SRL Committee”); Judicial Education; Outreach and Education; Pro Bono; the Pro Bono Coordinating Consortium; and the ad hoc Strategic Planning Committee.
A. Access for Self-Represented Litigants Committee
Administrative. The SRL Committee met two times in 2020: January 27, and October 19, 2020.
Projects. The Committee has completed initial work on the forms automation project, which is being staffed primarily by the Richmond School of Law and the Virginia Poverty Law Center (“VPLC”) and funded by a Technology Initiative Grant awarded by the Legal Services Corporation to Southwest Virginia Legal Aid Society in 2017. Thein forma pauperis (Form CC-1414)and tenant’s assertion forms (Form DC-429) have been completed and are live, hosted on VALegalAid.com No additional forms are scheduled for completion at this time but further forms automation is under consideration.
B. Judicial Education Committee
Administrative. The Committee met three times: March 19,July 22, and November 19, 2020.The Committee celebrated Judge Fulton’s being awarded the 2020 Harry L. Carrico Professionalism Award, and was honored by the addition of two new members: Judge Frances O’Brien, Chief Judge, Arlington County General District Court; and Judge Robert A. Pustilnik (retired), Richmond General District Court.
Projects The Committee developed detailed information on alternative dispute resolution as an entirely new addition to the District Court Benchbook. The Benchbook entry included a description of how the Alexandria General District Court uses mediation in its small claims court, and the Committee is considering developing a training session based on this model.
The Committee requested guidance from the Judicial Ethics Advisory Committee (“JEAC”) on whether General District Courts could provide guidance on financial assistance for landlords and tenants along with summonses for unlawful detainers (the same materials would be provided to plaintiffs when they filed unlawful detainers). The Committee is awaiting a final opinion on the question.
The Committee generated explanatory information about the 2018 amendments to Rule 1:5 proposed for inclusion in the agenda package for the Judicial Conference of Virginia.
C. Outreach and Education Committee
Administrative. The Committee did not meet in 2020.
Projects. The Committee’s major outstanding project is the Commission website. A prototype has been developed, and a protocol for identifying and reviewing website material has been developed. Development of the website was delayed due to the unexpected and tragic death of Mr. Marcus Gaither(the staff person at the Virginia Law Foundation who was assisting the Committee with development of the website)in the Summer of 2020. The website will be a priority project for 2021.
In another priority project, the Committee plans to work with the Strategic Planning Committee on development and implementation of the virtual town hall meetings.
In early 2020, Committee members met with Pro Bono Committee members to sketch the outlines of how to approach developing a marketing campaign directed at increasing both attorney participation in provision of pro bono legal services and the amount of financial contributions made in lieu of direct legal service. The project has two interrelated components: undertaking research to develop a clearer understanding of the reasons underlying historically low levels of pro bono service, and engaging with a private advertising agency (optimally on a pro bonobasis) for development and implementation of a responsive advertising campaign. This project will be reinitiated in January 2021.
D. Pro Bono Committee
Administrative. The Committee met three times in 2020: February 25, September 2, and December 7, 2020.
Projects. The Committee developed a revision to the third year practice rule contained in the Rules of Supreme Court at Part Six, Section IV, paragraph 15. The proposed revision would (i) accommodate continuing third year practice in the light of the additional dates proposed for the Virginia State Bar examination due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and (ii) clarify the definition of “law student” consistent with current interpretation and application of the third year practice rule. This proposed revision was approved by the Supreme Court of Virginia on September 18, 2020, for immediate effect.
The Committee is the Commission’s liaison for the 2020 Chief Justice’s Pro Bono Summit, scheduled for April 1, 2020. The Committee was supportive of the planning for the Summit; however, the Summit was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
E. Pro Bono Coordinating Consortium
Administrative. The Consortium met three times in 2020:May19, September 9, and December9, 2020.The Consortium welcomed 20 new members in early 2020: seven law school staff/faculty members; nine legal aid pro bono coordinators; and four employees of independent nonprofit legal service providers.
Projects. The Consortium continued to focus throughout 2020on facilitating information sharing and collaboration among pro bono service providers, and coordinating pro bono training and associated activities of the Virginia State Bar, the Virginia Bar Association, local bar groups, and specialty bars. The Consortium has focused on the challenges relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, including confusion regarding access to the courts and the difficulty of continuing clinics in light of law school closures. The Consortium discussed the process of courts beginning to resume normal operations, including the difficulty of determining what court procedures apply and issues associated with electronic hearings, including the difficulty of communicating with clients during the hearing, accessibility issues for clients in rural areas, delays associated with in-person hearings, and the importance of in-person hearings in certain cases.
The Consortium continues to track the development and progress of the pro bono portal, Justice Server. The Justice Server subcommittee has met by conference call two times, and has established a set of priorities. The subcommittee has been inactive since March, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and transition challenges related to a leadership change at the Greater Richmond Bar Foundation.
F. Ad Hoc Strategic Planning Committee
Administrative. The Committee met once, on October 14, 2020.
Projects. The Committee had invested significant time in planning the first of eight proposed regional meetings before the COVID-19 pandemic rendered that meeting infeasible. When the Committee regrouped on October 14, 2020, it focused on sketching the outlines of the virtual town hall meetings, and discussing the merits of further strategic planning and implementing the court user survey. The Committee eventually recommended that the Commission postpone strategic planning until it is possible to meet in person, and that the survey be indefinitely put on hold.
The Commission has not scheduled its first meeting for 2021. The Commission is hoping to be able to resume its regular course of business in the near future, however, Commission projects and activities undertaken in 2021 will depend in part upon the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.