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 ordersentered by the Supreme Court of Virginia on September13, 2013, and November 7, 2019.
I. Meetings and Membership
The Commission met four times in 2019: March 27; June 7;September 13;and December 6, 2019.Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons reappointed five members of the Commission to serve three-year terms (from December 1, 2019,until November 30, 2022): Ms. Andrea Bridgeman; Mr. Lonnie D. “Chip” Nunley, III; Judge Daniel Ortiz; Mr. Stephen D. Otero; and Mr. Ray White. Chief Justice Lemons reappointed Ms. Gail Warren to serve a two-year term (from December 1, 2019, until November 30, 2021).
The Commission approved a comprehensive revision to its Rules of Operation, including deleting outdated provisions,adding language from the Order establishing the Commission, establishing provisions governing the nomination of candidates for Commission membership, and adding provisions governing funding.
II. Initiatives and Accomplishments
The Commission’s key accomplishments in 2019 include the following:
- The Commission worked in collaboration with the Virginia Law Foundation to complete a video celebrating personal vignettes from lawyers regarding the meaning and value of pro bono service. The video includes vignettes of Chief Justice Lemons and Justice Goodwyn, and has been screened at various CLE sessions and local bar meetings across the Commonwealth to inspire greater pro bono service by Virginia attorneys.
- The Commission developed the Pro Bono Service Recognition program, which includes two types of awards: ones honoring high-performing judicial circuits, and ones honoring high-performing attorneys. The awards would be based on pro bono contributions voluntarily reported by active Virginia attorneys on the annual License Renewal Statement, which is consistent with the goal of providing data “for the judiciary to support its efforts to promote and recognize pro bono work on a local, regional and statewide basis” as stated in the Court’s Order dated February 27, 2018, approving voluntary pro bono reporting.
The Commission continued in 2019to operate through its five existing committees: Access for Self-Represented Litigants (“SRL Committee”); Judicial Education; Outreach and Education; Pro Bono; and the Pro Bono Coordinating Consortium. The Commission’s ad hoc Strategic Planning Committee focused in 2019 on developing projects intended to generate additional information to guide the Commission’s work, including a statewide “Listening Tour” and court user surveys.
A. Ad Hoc Strategic Planning Committee
Administrative: The Committee met two times in 2019: March 4andSeptember 13, 2019.
Projects: The Committee has undertaken extensive planning for the Listening Tour: a series of “town hall” meetings in eight regions across the Commonwealth intended to afford the Commission an opportunity to hear from lawyers, members of the judiciary, service providers, community activists, political leaders ,and Virginia citizens regarding access to justice issues. Teams of Commission members will work with local bar associations and local legal aid offices, which would be asked to assist in locating space and publicizing the meetings.
The primary purpose of the meetings is for the Commission to learn about obstacles to accessing or providing legal services, as well as about initiatives that have supported or increased access. The Commission also would have an opportunity to share information about its mission and goals. Each of the eight groups will report back to the Commission at a future meeting –optimally structured as a day-long retreat –and the information will be used to help further develop the Commission’s ongoing strategic planning efforts. The first regional meeting will be held in the afternoon of March 16, 2020, at the University of Richmond Law School. The meeting will follow the Commission’s first quarterly meeting of 2020, which will take place in the morning.
The primary purpose of the meetings is for the Commission to learn about obstacles to accessing or providing legal services, as well as about initiatives that have supported or increased access. The Commission also would have an opportunity to share information about its mission and goals. Each of the eight groups will report back to the Commission at a future meeting –optimally structured as a day-long retreat –and the information will be used to help further develop the Commission’s ongoing strategic planning efforts. The first regional meeting will be held in the afternoon of March 16, 2020, at the University of Richmond Law School. The meeting will follow the Commission’s first quarterly meeting of 2020, which will take place in the morning. The Committee also is working on a court user needs assessment that would involve site visits to general district and juvenile and domestic relations district courts to survey court users about their experiences in court. The needs assessment will examine how unrepresented litigants and other court users interact with the courts to resolve legal issues or obtain information, and determine the extent to which existing aspects of or changes to court structure or function may support or improve that interaction. The user survey may help identify both the difficulties court users experience when they attempt to initiate or respond to a civil matter, or access information through a clerk’s office, and the kinds of assistance that would best help users address and resolve the difficulties. The findings from the survey may support the Commission’s work in a number of respects, including by informing its strategic plan and future projects.
B. Judicial Education Committee
Administrative: The Committee met three times: March 14,August 15, and November 7, 2019.
Projects: The Committee developed a digital page, an electronic Word file containing information on various Committee initiatives, and on the Commission more generally. The page is located on the Commission’s page on the Court’s website, and is periodically updated and included in conference materials.
The Committee, in early 2019,completedaproposed entry for the Circuit Court Benchbook. The proposed entry will integrate the practice points relating to self-represented litigants now contained in the District Court Bench Book into the Circuit Court Bench Book as a checklist. The checklist is expected to be included in the 2019-2020 Circuit Court Benchbook.
The Committee drafted a proposed entry for the General District Court Benchbook supplying guidance on the amendments to Rule 1:5. When the District Court Judges Benchbook Committee (“Benchbook Committee”) was advised of the Committee’s intention to request that the Commission submit the proposed addition to the Benchbook Committee for its consideration, the Benchbook Committee sua sponte took the proposed addition under consideration for inclusion in the 2020 Benchbook.
The Committee developed the outline of a conference session relating to the Canons of Judicial Conduct, and submitted that to the Judicial Education Committee of the Judicial Conference of Virginia. The conference session will examine Canons 3 and 4, and their commentary,r elating to a judge’s ability to promote access to justice. The session is expected to be integrated with the presentation by staff of the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission in order to gain staff’s perspective on the judicial actions contemplated by the Canons and commentary at issue.
The Committee has initiated work on a plenary session on mediation and a breakout session for general district court judges on mediation’s use in small claims court(using as a model the Alexandria General District Court approach) for presentation at the Judicial Conference of Virginia for District Courts.
C. Outreach and Education Committee
Administrative: The Committee met four times in 2019: March 21,June 3,August 22,and November 6, 2019. The Communications subcommittee met on July 23, 2019.
Projects. The Committee worked with the Virginia Law Foundation to complete a video depicting lawyers discussing their experience providing pro bono legal assistance. The video has been shown in several public forums, and “version 2.0” is under development.
The Committee is developing a prototype of a Commission website for consideration by the Court.
The Committee plans to work with the Pro Bono Committee to develop a marketing campaign directed at increasing attorney participation in provision of pro bono legal services and increasing the amount of financial contributions made in lieu of direct legal service. The project has two interrelated components: working with social sciences researchers 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 bono basis) for development and implementation of a responsive advertising campaign.
D. Pro Bono Committee
Administrative: The Committee met five times in2019: February 20, May 23, August 21, September 5, and November 4, 2019.
Projects. The Committee developed the Commission’s proposal on voluntary reporting of pro bono service as part of the annual bar license renewal application. The Supreme Court of Virginia approved the proposal on February 27, 2018, thereby adding a new Paragraph 22(effective December 1, 2018) to Part 6, Section IV of the Rules of the Supreme Court of Virginia. Throughout the ensuing two years, the Committee has worked with the Virginia State Bar to address implementation of the new voluntary reporting requirements. In 2019, the Committee reviewed updated data for the voluntary reporting of pro bono hours and contributions associated with the 2019 bar license renewal applications, and developed proposed changes to the reporting form and to the text of Paragraph 22which will be submitted to the Court in 2020.
The Committee developed a Pro Bono Recognition Program, which has been approved by the Court in concept. The Program proposes recognizing both high-performing judicial circuits, and individual attorneys, based on pro bono contributions voluntarily reported on the annual License Renewal Statement.
The Committee developed the parameters of the Pro Bono Promotional Campaign, and referred it to the Outreach & Education Committee for further development. The project will be jointly implemented by both Committees.
The Committee is the Commission’s liaison for the 2020 Chief Justice’s Pro Bono Summit, scheduled for April 1, 2020. The Chair has issued a standing invitation to the Summit co-chairs, Nicole Harrell and David Greenspan, to join the Committee as special guests to facilitate coordination on Summit development.
E. Pro Bono Coordinating Consortium
Administrative: The Consortium met three times in 2019:May26, August 28, and November 22, 2019.Tameeka Williams, Managing Attorney and Pro Bono Coordinator with the Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia has been appointed as Vice-Chair. She will take on leadership of the Consortium in the second quarter of 2020 while Ms. Gantz is on leave.
Projects. In 2019, the Consortium continued to focus on 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 helped disseminate information about the driver’s license reinstatement provisions that were passed as part of a budget amendment proposed by Governor Northam, including promoting a webinar training for Virginia attorneys wishing to help Virginians recover their licenses.
The Consortium has established a subcommittee to share ideas for best practices, tips, and other information pertaining to use of the JusticeServer Pro Bono Portal. The subcommittee’s first meeting is January6, 2020.
F. Access for Self-Represented Litigants Committee
Administrative: The SRL Committee met three times in 2019: January 29, April 16, and October 28, 2019. Four members of the Committee were reappointed to two-year terms: Ms. Kimberly McKittrick, Ms. Patricia Petroccione, Judge Susan Stoney, and Judge Gino Williams (Committee Vice-Chair)
Projects: Court forms-The Committee continues to work on the forms automation project, which is being staffed primarily by the University of 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. Three rounds of testing have been completed on thein forma pauperis(“IFP”) and tenant’s assertion forms. VPLC continues to work on updating the no-fault divorce form. The new target date for completing automation of the IFP and tenant’s assertion forms is early 2020.
Court access-The Committee worked with the Center for Legal and Court Technology (“CLCT”) at the College of William & Mary School of Law to develop a video depicting how to ask for, change, and terminate certain protective orders issued in General District Court, in situations in which the two people involved are adults and are not family or household members. A draft video has been produced and is expected to be finalized in early 2020.The Committee proposes further work with the CLCT to develop videos depicting the process of litigating in small claims court and how to complete forms through the automated process being developed by the University of Richmond and Virginia Poverty Law Center.
The Committee heard from Kellam Parks, Chair of the Virginia State Bar’s Technology Committee, at its April meeting. Mr. Parks has been on the Technology Committee for the last six years and has chaired or co-chaired it for the last three years. The Technology Committee decided in 2018 (before the model policy on electronic devices was disseminated)to survey all three levels of courts statewide to identify their technology policies and resources for attorneys, and more generally for all court users. Different courts have different resources; there are no set policies relative to technology and electronic resources. The Committee expects to work with the Technology Committee in 2020 on this issue, including helping to develop further support for implementation of the Court’s model policy on electronic devices.
Alternative dispute resolution–The Committee’s subcommittee on alternative dispute resolution and online dispute resolution continued its work. The Commission approved a proposed project on Technology Training for Mediators. Standard training for court-referred mediators does not address the use of technology, including the problematic issue of how to maintain confidentiality for information under review by the mediator. Training that can provide this guidance can be incorporated into the annual training or offered as stand-alone component. As a step towards developing this training, the subcommittee surveyed Court-certified mediators regarding their knowledge of and interest in certain technology applications having the potential to support their work.
The Commission’s first meeting in 2020will be held on March 16, 2020, at the University of Richmond School of Law. The Commission will have a regular work session in the morning, followed by an afternoon session devoted to the first of eight “town hall meetings” that will make up the Commission’s 2020 Listening Tour. Additional meetings for 2020will be scheduled at that time.