Rhonda Cunningham Holmes, executive director of the Legal Counsel for the Elderly (Courtesy photo)
Rhonda Cunningham Holmes, executive director of the Legal Counsel for the Elderly (Courtesy photo)

A bill before the D.C. Council, The Pro Bono Legal Representation Expansion Amendment Act of 2021, authored by D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), would change regulations and allow District government lawyers to provide pro bono or free legal services to the public if no conflict of interest exists with their employment.

“As long as the vast majority of people facing eviction, debt collection, violence in their relationships, employment issues and other life-changing legal problems are alone in the courtroom, we don’t have a fair and just legal system,” said Allen, who also chairs the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety.

“The right to counsel exists in criminal cases but it doesn’t in civil cases. This bill takes a simple yet important step in the right direction toward a full right to counsel in civil cases by expanding pro bono opportunities and recognizing all the skills the District’s attorneys have to offer,” he said.

Allen’s legislation comes as many District residents grapple with eviction problems both before and during the coronavirus pandemic. Rhonda Cunningham Holmes, executive director of the Legal Counsel for the Elderly, who testified at the bill’s hearing before the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety on Oct. 27, said 87% of tenants who were eventually evicted from their homes didn’t have legal representation at their D.C. Superior Court proceeding whereas over 90% of landlords had attorneys with them.

The Compelling Need for Pro Bono Services

The D.C. Bar Pro Bono Center reports 65 District law firms devoted 1.05 million hours of pro bono work in 2020 to assist city residents who needed legal aid. The center says 9,328 attorneys who practice in the District engaged in pro bono work, with each attorney attributing an average of 91 pro bono hours. The center’s Initiative Report noted the free legal advice came when firms had economic issues themselves during the pandemic.

“Given that the pandemic had significant economic ramifications for law firms across the country, the consistency of the firms’ pro bono efforts this past year was not guaranteed,” the report said. “While more is still needed, the firms’ recognition that the pandemic demanded that their pro bono efforts continue unabated is to be commended.”

Additionally, ContractsCounsel.com reported in its Aug. 17 post that District attorneys charge $250 – 400 an hour, rates which Holmes said middle class families would struggle to pay.

Support for the Pro Bono Bill

Allen’s bill has received the support of the majority of the D.C. Council with Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) and Council members Robert White (D-At Large), Christina Henderson (I-At Large), Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Brooke Pinto (D-Ward 2), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4) and Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) co-introducing the bill in June.

Keeshea Turner Roberts, who serves as the Washington Council of Lawyers advocacy committee’s co-chair, said a “justice gap” exists in the city which justifies the pro bono expansion bill.

“The demand for pro bono services far outstrips the resources available,” she said at the hearing. “For instance, the lifting of the eviction moratorium will bring more cases. According to the recent census bureau household post survey, an estimated 25,655 D.C. residents are behind in their rent with greater numbers of 37,622 of residents either not or slightly confident in their ability to make next month’s rental payment.”

Roberts said the D.C. Violence Clinic reported a 300% increase in calls for assistance during the pandemic representing yet another reason for the legislation. She said D.C. Superior Court Chief Judge Anita Josey-Herring has urged District lawyers to do more pro bono work.

“There are over 600 attorneys employed by the D.C. government who can help answer this call for joining other lawyers from the private and federal sectors and the D.C. Office of the Attorney General through its new pro bono effort in representing individuals in selected local court cases,” Roberts said.

Holmes said “the bill is much needed.”

“We do not have enough people for all of the seniors who need representation,” she said. “We are the only legal service provider for seniors. When people go to court, they should have an attorney.”

Holmes said the pro bono bill would allow her organization to more effectively represent their clients.

“Utilizing D.C. government attorneys is a great idea,” she said. “Those attorneys live in the community. They know what is going on. Allen’s legislation will allow us to take more cases, probate more cases and keep people housed.”

James Wright Jr. is the D.C. political reporter for the Washington Informer Newspaper. He has worked for the Washington AFRO-American Newspaper as a reporter, city editor and freelance writer and The Washington...

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