A CALL TO SERVE: REMEMBERING THE COMMONWEALTH’S RURAL POOR

By Karla D. Carter, Esquire

John Whitfield knows hard times. Born and raised in rural Staunton, Virginia with the Blue Ridge and Allegheny mountains as a backdrop, Whitfield’s family was among the low- income population living in the predominantly rural community. When he was still a child, Whitfield’s mother faced a serious legal problem and could not afford to hire an attorney to represent her in the civil matter. A local lawyer stepped up to offer his services, pro bono. This lawyer’s decision to help a family facing a desperate situation left a lasting impression on the young Whitfield, who later went on to become a lawyer who has devoted his career to helping the poor. Whitfield now serves as Executive Director of Blue Ridge Legal Services, a legal aid organization serving the low-income population in his native Shenandoah and Roanoke River Valleys. His family has received the legal services he now gives to others, and he recognizes its value. “But for the charity of a willing lawyer, my mom’s legal rights would have been worthless,” Whitfield said. The “willing lawyer” who helped his family is now-retired Court of Appeals Judge Rudolph Bumgardner III. He was a private attorney who offered his services to meet a need, a need that continues to persist decades later and which exceeds the capabilities of the legal aid organizations across the Commonwealth.

ACCESS TO LEGAL SERVICES IN VIRGINIA: BY THE NUMBERS

Currently, there is one legal aid lawyer for every 7,237 Virginians. If you can afford a lawyer, that number drops considerably: there is one lawyer for every 349 Virginians.i While these statistics encompass the low-income populations of both rural and urban areas, rural communities in Virginia and across the nation face unique issues by virtue of their geographic location.

COMMON ISSUES AFFECTING THE RURAL POOR

Often times, those in need in rural areas face isolation brought on by the lack of transportation options and limited broadband access in their areas. Also, some of these people are “land poor” in that they don’t have clear title to their land. These “intractable issues” relating to title problems can deprive people of basic needs, according to Ann Kloeckner, Executive Director of Legal Aid Works®, a legal aid organization serving the City of Fredericksburg and 17 rural counties surrounding Fredericksburg and in the Northern Neck region of Virginia. Soon after starting with Legal Aid Works®, Kloeckner toured the Northern Neck region of the state and visited with an attorney-turned-pastor who led a church which ran a “water ministry” in the community providing water to people who were unable to dig wells on their property because they lacked clear title to their land.

In other instances, property is often lost because one or more of the property owners are unknown. One summer, while volunteering at a legal aid office, John Whitfield recalls going through a drawer in the local clerk’s office filled with parcel information cards. All of the cards represented parcels with unknown owners, many of whom are likely part of a recurring scenario I have often come upon in my practice: a family member dies without a will, often leaving heirs spread across multiple generations, some of whom are incarcerated, laboring under some other disability, or otherwise unable to be found. The property sits vacant or becomes dilapidated and is often auctioned for unpaid taxes or is condemned due to blight.

Those undug wells and that drawer full of cards both represent the same thing: the loss of legacies, history, and wealth impacting many poor families in rural America, particularly those in the poor African-American communities.

Along with title problems, Whitfield and Kloeckner describe another issue impacting the communities they represent: affordable housing. According to Whitfield, “substandard housing” in rural areas of Virginia is only too common. “Rural landlords get away with a lot,” says Whitfield, because existing buildings are not subject to inspection and often there is no code enforcement services available in rural communities. “It is much harder when you don’t have a building code official to enforce,” says Whitfield. People living in “third world conditions” but don’t want to “rock the boat” because the housing, albeit substandard, is all they can afford, says Kloeckner. “The power of having a landlord/tenant attorney represent you in court makes so much difference,” said Kloeckner. A recent study of the Virginia court system underscores this truth.

A DYSFUNCTIONAL SYSTEM

Unrepresented tenants often fare poorly in court, compared to those who have attorneys, according to a study produced by the National Center for State Courts. (ii) The study, the first of its kind in Virginia, discusses civil case outcomes in the General District, Juvenile & Domestic Relations, and Circuit courts in the Commonwealth. The study shows a clear correlation between poverty and the lack of legal representation in the courts. The study found that the greater the extent of poverty in a locality (often a rural community), the less likely that parties will have an attorney. (iii)

This lack of representation of the poor in court more often than not translates into unfavorable outcomes for the unrepresented litigant. “Poverty, and the concomitant inability to retain counsel creates a significant barrier to successful outcomes for unrepresented poor litigants in Virginia’s courts, notwithstanding the best efforts of our judges to treat all litigants fairly,” said Whitfield in a presentation on the findings of the study. (iv)

Of the 24,168 active attorneys practicing in Virginia as of April 2017,(v) 132 are legal aid attorneys, (vi) in a state where nearly a million people live in poverty (942,122), according to U.S. Census 2016 estimates.vii The staggering need for the assistance of willing attorneys to provide pro bono services in Virginia cannot be emphasized enough.  

ANSWER THE CALL

An attorney’s decision to serve, or if unable to serve, then to donate in support of legal aid organizations, has the potential to set into motion a course of events that could alter the trajectory of not only the person being represented, but that of their families and communities. In John Whitfield’s case, the choice one lawyer made many years ago to help his family in need was a seed sown in Whitfield’s life, a seed which continues to yield a great harvest in the form of the lives of the many people and families he has been able to assist during his career.

Consider being another “willing lawyer,” like the one who helped John Whitfield’s mother those many years ago. The Virginia Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 6.1 encourages attorneys to devote time or money to pro bono service. The Comment to Rule 6.1 provides:

Every lawyer, regardless of professional prominence or professional work load, has a personal responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay, and personal involvement in the problems of the disadvantaged can be one of the most rewarding experiences in the life of a lawyer.

Attorneys who find themselves unable to take on pro bono cases are still able to help. Monetary donations are critical to the success of legal aid organizations and also meet the Virginia State Bar’s goals for attorney pro bono participation.viii An attorney’s donation of time or money will have a lasting impact. Every minute donated matters, as does every dollar, no matter the amount.

Just ask John Whitfield.

HOW YOU CAN HELP

Contact the legal aid organization in your area to find out ways to volunteer or donate. Several of the organizations are listed below, but for additional information on pro bono resources available to attorneys, visit the Virginia State Bar’s website at:

https://www.vsb.org/site/sections/pro_bono/resources_for_attorneys.

•Blue Ridge Legal Services – (540) 433-1830 (main office in Harrisonburg, offices in Winchester, Lexington, and Roanoke) http://brls.org/

•Central Virginia Legal Aid Society – (804) 200-6046 or (804) 648-1012 (main office in Richmond, offices in Petersburg, and Charlottesville) http://cvlas.org/

•Legal Aid Justice Center – (434) 977-0553 (main office in Charlottesville, offices in Richmond, Petersburg, and Falls Church) https://www.justice4all.org/

•Legal Aid Society of Eastern Virginia – (757) 627-5423 (main office in Norfolk, offices in Hampton, Virginia Beach, Belle Haven, and Williamsburg) https://www.laseva.org/

•Legal Aid Society of Roanoke Valley – (540) 344-2080 (Roanoke) http://lasrv.org/

•Legal Services of Northern Virginia – (703) 778-6800 (main office in Falls Church, offices in Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax, Leesburg, and Manassas) http://www.lsnv.org/

•Legal Aid Works – (540) 371-1105 (main offices in Fredericksburg, offices in Culpeper, and Tappahannock) http://www.legalaidworks.org/

•Southwest Virginia Legal Aid – (888) 201-2772 (main office in Marion, offices in Castlewood and Christiansburg) https://www.swvalegalaid.org/

•Virginia Legal Aid Society – (434) 455-3080 (main office in Lynchburg, offices in Danville, Farmville, and Suffolk) http://vlas.org/

•A new Pro Bono Portal is now available that connects attorneys with multiple legal aid services providers through one site, allowing attorneys to take on a case anywhere in the state. For more information visit: https://www.justiceserver.org/JusticeServer/Home/Index.

i Source: “Ten Facts About Virginia’s Justice Gap,” Virginia State Bar Pro Bono/Access to Legal Services

ii Source: The Virginia Self-Represented Litigant Study, National Center for State Courts, 2017, see http://brls.org/the-virginia-self-represented-litigant-study/

iii Source: The Virginia Self-Represented Litigant Study, National Center for State Courts, 2017, see http://brls.org/the-virginia-self-represented-litigant-study/

iv Source: Powerpoint presentation of John Whitfield “The Virginia Self-Represented Litigant Study: Outcomes of Civil Cases in General District Court, Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court, and Circuit Court”

v Source: Powerpoint presentation of John Whitfield “The Justice Gap: Perspectives from the Bench on Pro Bono Services”

vi Source Source: Powerpoint presentation of John Whitfield “The Justice Gap: Perspectives from the Bench on Pro Bono Services” (quoting LSCV Annual Report, September 2016)

vii Source Source: Powerpoint presentation of John Whitfield “The Justice Gap: Perspectives from the Bench on Pro Bono Services”

viii From the Virginia State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 6.1, subsection (c) provides: Direct financial support of programs that provide direct delivery of legal services to meet the needs described in (a) above is an alternative method for fulfilling a lawyer’s responsibility under this Rule.

AUTHOR BIO Karla Carter is an assistant city attorney for the City of Suffolk, Virginia where she represents the City, the Suffolk Economic Development Authority, and various boards and commissions on various matters involving real estate, land use, economic development, environmental law, franchises, and child welfare law. Prior to coming to Suffolk in 2006, Ms. Carter served as an assistant city attorney in Virginia Beach (1999-2006) and as a law clerk for the Seventh Judicial Circuit (Newport News) (1997-1999). A native of Lancaster County, a rural community in the Northern Neck of Virginia, Ms. Carter graduated from the College of William and Mary in 1993 and the University of Richmond School of Law in 1997.

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