Virginia’s Access to Justice Commission: The First Year

by Gail Warren
In early 2013, utilizing an “Access to Justice Commission Expansion Project Grant” from the American Bar Association, the Supreme Court of Virginia convened an Access to Justice Planning Committee, chaired by Justice S. Bernard Goodwyn.  The committee was charged with determining whether an access to justice commission was needed in Virginia and, if so, what direction such a commission should take.  The committee recommended to the court the creation of the Virginia Access to Justice Commission and a little over a year ago, on September 13, 2013, the Supreme Court of Virginia established the Virginia Access to Justice Commission.
In creating this commission, Virginia joined 28 other states with access to justice commissions, each charged with expanding access to civil justice for low income and disadvantaged persons.  The mission of Virginia’s commission, which is comprised of judges, lawyers, and others, is to promote equal access to justice in Virginia, with particular emphasis on the civil legal needs of Virginia residents.  The commission is co-chaired by the Honorable S. Bernard Goodwyn, Justice, Supreme Court of Virginia, and John Whitfield, Executive Director, Blue Ridge Legal Services, Inc.  The full commission roster appears here:
The first meeting of the commission, in December 2013, provided an opportunity for introductions, a presentation by Steve Grumm, Director of the ABA's Access to Justice Resource Center, and, last but not least, consideration of the “operational nature” of the commission such as rules, tasks and agendas.  As a result of our discussion and the clear need for action, four working committees were established, each chaired by a member of the commission:
  1. Pro Se Litigant/Court Access Committee (now the Access for Self-Represented Litigants Committee)
  2. Pro Bono Committee
  3. Judicial Education Committee
  4. Public Relations/Communications/Education Committee
In addition to appointing each commission member to at least one of the above committees, the committees were charged with identifying and adding other professionals to their roster.  VALL member Patty Petroccione not only serves as the chair of the VALL Access to Justice Committee, she also serves on the Access for Self-Represented Litigants Committee of the commission and I serve on the Public Relations Committee.
Both Patty and I benefit from the wise counsel and support of the other VALL members serving on the VALL Access to Justice Committee, including Leslie Ashbrook, Donna Bausch, Robert Davis, Ben Doherty and Meldon Jenkins-Jones.  Many of you will recall this special committee was established in January of this year and its charge includes “advising the law librarian appointee to the Virginia Access to Justice Commission about the public’s needs for access to legal information and legal information literacy instruction, about initiatives of law librarians statewide in serving those needs, and issues concerning access to and use of legal information by this population.”  The committee is also responsible for coordinating “efforts of law librarians across the state to improve public access to legal information and legal information literacy instruction,” and reporting to VALL “about the relevant activities and interests of entities beyond Virginia’s borders and, conversely, share information about VALL’s activities and interests with outside organizations as appropriate.”
While the full Virginia Access to Justice Commission meets on a quarterly basis and submits quarterly reports to the Supreme Court of Virginia, the working committees meet far more frequently and are the “wheels” that are moving the commission toward its goals. [Note the commission’s meeting calendar at the Virginia Judiciary web site:
Over the past year, the four working committees have completed a number of tasks, including:
  • Revising the Virginia Judiciary web site to make it easier to locate the form for proceeding In Forma Pauperis [= proceeding without payment of fees or costs] and incorporating a link to Virginia Legal Aid
  • Expanding the “Firms in Service” model beyond the Richmond Metropolitan Area to provide more opportunities for attorneys interested in pro bono service
  • Creating a Virginia Access to Justice Commission Wiki to serve as a repository for commission rosters, meeting agendas and minutes, and links to access to justice resources
  • Preparing a draft of “talking points” for commission members and others interested in promoting access to justice
  • Providing focused judicial programming at the Judicial Conference of Virginia for District Courts, by arranging for Professor Kelly Tait, University of Nevada-Reno to address procedural fairness and self-represented litigants
  • Drafting practice points for the bench books regarding self-represented litigants in the courtroom, to be reviewed by the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission
Because Virginia’s Access to Justice Commission is intended to be a permanent entity within the judicial branch, I encourage more members of VALL to become involved -- one option for VALL members is utilizing your “current” connections with those currently serving on the commission.  For example, if an individual from your law firm or academic institution appears on the commission’s roster, offer this individual your research and legal information expertise for their commission activities.  And, even if you are unable to volunteer right now for a working committee or lend your expertise, there will be ongoing opportunities for law librarians in the years ahead.
Stay tuned for updates!

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