On Nov. 6, the Vermont Bar Association stood with the state’s other legal service providers at the Vermont Supreme Court to announce the recently completed “Economic Impact of Civil Legal Assistance Programs in Vermont” study. This report, the first of its kind in Vermont, shows the Vermont economy gains $11 in new or saved funds for every dollar spent on low-income legal services in civil cases. If you have not read the report, please visit the Vermont Bar Foundation’s website (vtbarfoundation.org) and click on the banner link to the report.
This 11-to-1 rate of return is impressive, but it is not nearly as impressive as the stories that underlie these statistics. Within each dollar of those $11, there is a family that is able to stay in their apartment until new housing is found; a worker who keeps her job; and a disabled veteran able to access federal support for the first time. The work of low-income legal services is the work of ensuring none of us falls through the cracks, and legal protections meant for all are, in fact, enjoyed by all.
The VBA’s support for such programs is long-standing and consistent. In 1878, the first act of the fledgling Vermont Bar Association was to contribute to the support of children orphaned by an outbreak of yellow fever. Since then, the VBA has worked consistently to develop programs aimed at helping its Vermont neighbors, particularly those living in poverty and in need of access to civil legal services.
Since 2008, the VBA has operated “low bono” projects at the county level where a VBA staffer connects lawyers willing to work on a volunteer (pro bono) or significantly reduced basis (low bono) with individuals in need. These lawyers represent Vermonters in foreclosure cases, child support cases and other civil matters where the presence of a lawyer can mean the difference between a just outcome and disaster. Working collaboratively with other legal-service providers in Vermont, the VBA’s role is to provide representation in “everything else” cases beyond the expertise of legal-services attorneys and in geographic areas of the state other low-income legal-service partners do not cover.
Here are a few examples of what the VBA low bono work, which is part of the $11 gain, includes.
One of the saddest impacts of the opioid epidemic in Vermont (and nationwide) has been its effect on the juvenile docket. As parents have been wracked with addiction, the number of Termination of Parental Rights cases has spiked. These cases are heartbreaking, but they are also time- and resource-intensive. The termination process only occurs after the state, social workers, psychologists and other professionals prove to the court that termination is in the best interests of the child. This process can be even further delayed unless the relinquishing parents are able to reach agreement about the Post Adoption Contact Agreement (PACA) with the adoptive parents. Unlike the other parties, however, adoptive parents are not entitled to subsidized representation. This often leads to unnecessary delays and misunderstandings. Since 2018, the VBA’s low bono program has run a PACA representation program with a grant from the Vermont Supreme Court. The VBA pays private attorneys a low bono stipend to advise, negotiate and draft PACA’s for low-income adopting parents. The result has been a shortening of the overall process and a benefit to the children from the resulting stability.
Vermont’s population is currently the third-oldest in the country, with 17.02% percent of the population age 65 or older. As a result, the number of adult involuntary guardianships has risen exponentially in recent years. Proposed wards in involuntary guardianship cases are statutorily entitled to representation, but many families seeking a guardianship do not have the means to hire an attorney for themselves, let alone a separate attorney for the parent or relative who is the subject of the guardianship, and funding from the state has never been available in those cases. Since 2018, the VBA low bono program has sought to cover this need by extending the services of volunteer attorneys. This need has not been fully met, but the VBA’s work has made it clear how critical this work is in protecting some of our most vulnerable Vermonters and ensuring that guardianships are established in the best interests of the ward and with the necessary proper oversight.
The benefits of these and other programs are reflected in the Economic Impacts of Civil Legal Assistance Programs in Vermont study and are further described on the VBA website at www.vtbar.org. Vermont lawyers are proud to continue their long-standing tradition of providing legal assistance to low-income Vermonters in need.
Teri Corsones is the executive director of the Vermont Bar Association.