Today is Law Day, a time to celebrate the law and those who work to make sure justice, whether in criminal court or civil court, is ensured for all.
When somebody is charged with a crime with the potential loss of liberty, such individuals not only have a right to trial by jury but also a right, recognized in 1962 by the U.S. Supreme Court in Gideon v. Wainright, of legal representation. Gideon’s significance is tremendous: making sure anyone charged with a crime is guaranteed the right of representation.
Civil matters, of course, are different from criminal proceedings. Liberty is not at stake. Yet the 7th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States grants the right to trial by jury for civil cases involving controversies of $20. Likewise, the Minnesota Constitution preserves the right to civil trial.
What do the rights of those charged with crimes have to do with the rights of those who wish to have a civil trial? While there has been talk over the years of a civil Gideon process in this state and country, no such civil Gideon right presently exists in Minnesota or elsewhere in the U.S. There is no assurance that someone in civil court has a lawyer.
So what of those who cannot afford lawyers who are not facing criminal charges but who need justice in a civil case? What of those individuals who cannot afford lawyers who are threatened with the loss of their home for failure to pay rent; going through divorce proceedings; embroiled in child-custody proceedings; or who are facing bankruptcy, collection notices or any number of other noncriminal yet profoundly significant legal proceedings? How do these folks who are unfamiliar with the law, the regulations and court procedures navigate such difficult situations?
Fortunately, for many facing difficult legal hurdles but who cannot afford the help of a lawyer there are organizations to help. In the Northland, we have two of the very best such organizations. They operate under the radar with little or no recognition, despite the incredible and valuable services they provide to their clients, the courts and society as a whole.
First, there is the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern Minnesota, or LASNEM, which, for all intents and purposes, is a law firm. Yet, unlike most law firms, LASNEM is a nonprofit and its attorneys do not accept fees from clients. LASNEM lawyers do not go unpaid, but they work for far less compensation than the typical private-sector lawyer. In many ways, LASNEM lawyers are everyday heroes who choose to work at below-market value to help those who otherwise would go without help.
The ability of LASNEM to help, however, is limited by its size.
LASNEM employs only about 20 attorneys to serve the entire northeastern part of the state.
Across Minnesota, for every person represented by a legal aid lawyer there are approximately 7,000 others who are not, even though they cannot afford an attorney for their civil cases.
That brings us to the second fantastic local organization, the Volunteer Attorney Program. Unlike LASNEM, the Volunteer Attorney Program is not a law firm. Instead, it is a nonprofit organization that seeks to match those people who need the help of a lawyer with private-sector attorneys who volunteer their time and work on individual cases at no charge. The volunteer attorneys recruited by the Volunteer Attorney Program are lawyers who work as solo practitioners, members of small firms, members of large firms, lawyers working for corporate legal departments and the like. These lawyers are paid whatever salary it is that they earn in their regular jobs, but they choose to take on other cases pro bono through the Volunteer Attorney Program. This means these lawyers take on additional cases for no additional fees. The Volunteer Attorney Program has had the commitment of hundreds of local attorneys over the years, most who never got the recognition their efforts deserved.
The Volunteer Attorney Program seeks to fill that large void unmet by legal aid groups such as LASNEM by matching volunteer attorneys with clients unable to afford representation. The Volunteer Attorney Program operates solely through the efforts of its five dedicated employees and its many volunteer lawyers to help the poor in the 11 Northland counties of St. Louis, Lake, Cook, Carlton, Koochiching, Aitkin, Itasca, Pine, Crow Wing, Cass and Kanabec.
LASNEM and the Volunteer Attorney Program - Without these two outstanding organizations, the legal needs, in civil matters, of thousands of Northland residents would go unmet. Civil Gideon may or may come to fruition someday. Until then, we all owe a debt of gratitude to these organizations, the staff and lawyers of LASNEM, and the staff and volunteer attorneys for the Volunteer Attorney Program. Let’s all say thanks to these folks on Law Day - and maybe every day.
Sean M. Quinn of Duluth is chairman of the board of directors for the Volunteer Attorney Program and is a partner at Falsani, Balmer, Peterson, Quinn & Beyer. In 2010 he won the Volunteer Lawyer of the Year award. His firm is a multiple-time winner of the Volunteer Law Firm of the Year award.