NC Faith and Justice Alliance: Connecting Local and Faith Communities to Legal ResourcesPDF
More than 1.5 million North Carolinians live in poverty. According to the Federal Reserve, four in ten Americans lack sufficient savings to cover an unexpected $400 expense without adding to their debt. People in poverty also have at least their share of legal challenges. In a given year, 71% of low-income households experience at least one civil legal problem like a custody dispute, denial of government benefits, driver’s license revocation, or a landlord and tenant dispute. Unfortunately, 86% of those civil legal needs will go unmet.
North Carolina’s legal profession has a robust history of trying to meet the critical civil legal needs of those unable to afford an attorney. Legal aid attorneys work tirelessly to represent as many clients in crisis as possible, constrained by overwhelming need and insufficient resources. In our state, there are more than 8,000 people eligible for legal services for each legal aid attorney. Staggering on its own, this ratio is even more unsettling when compared to the state at large: There is one attorney per 357 people in North Carolina.
Private attorneys providing pro bono legal services bridge some of the access to justice gap caused by inadequate support of our state’s legal aid providers. North Carolina Rule of Professional Conduct 6.1 outlines the profession’s commitment to pro bono legal service as a way to address the needs of those with limited means. Rule 6.1 encourages every NC-licensed attorney to provide 50 hours of pro bono legal services each year. More than 520 attorneys were recognized for providing at least this many pro bono hours in 2019, joining the year’s cohort of the North Carolina Pro Bono Honor Society.
Further, the North Carolina Judicial Branch and the Equal Access to Justice Commission also work to improve the experiences of those who have to enter the court system without the assistance of an attorney. They do so through technological innovation and implementation of various policy changes. For example, the launch of eCourts Guide & File in late August supports self-represented litigants in common areas of law. This free online service uses web-based interviews to help pro se litigants prepare court documents to file in 14 areas of law.
Despite these and other laudable efforts, civil legal needs are still widespread, pervasive, and too often unmet among people living in poverty in North Carolina. Too frequently, low-income people face the consequences of civil legal needs without knowing that the law offers protection or remedy for them. They do so without knowing that legal resources might exist, or how to find those legal resources in their communities. Instead, as people have done for centuries, many low income North Carolinians will turn for guidance and instruction to their places of worship and their faith leaders. Particularly in rural North Carolina, faith communities frequently serve as anchor institutions in a local area, providing emergency financial assistance, food, and other sustenance along with worship, fellowship, and direction. Given that the 40 counties with the highest rates of poverty in North Carolina are rural—meaning that they have population densities of less than 300 people per square mile—these faith communities can prove crucial in connecting many North Carolinians in need to existing legal resources. These faith communities also can inform the state’s larger legal community about the legal needs and consequences prevalent at the local level throughout North Carolina.
Recognizing the essential role that local faith leaders can play in addressing unmet legal needs, Chief Justice Cheri Beasley recently launched the North Carolina Faith and Justice Alliance, a new program of the Equal Access to Justice Commission. Inspired by an established model in Tennessee, Chief Justice Beasley charged the group with building a coalition of faith-based groups and legal practitioners to help meet the growing need for legal assistance for North Carolinians who lack the resources to access our courts and protect their legal rights. According to Chief Justice Beasley, “Solving the access to justice gap is our moral obligation and an obligation of the faith community. Faith and justice must walk hand in hand to serve our communities. Working together we can ensure that all people have access to justice.”
The alliance began its work with a convening of a statewide, inter-faith steering committee, co-chaired by Dean Jonathan L. Walton, dean of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity, and me, Julian H. Wright Jr., an attorney with Robinson Bradshaw. The group heard from Justice Cornelia Clark of the Tennessee Supreme Court about four strategies the Tennessee Faith and Justice Alliance employs to meet legal needs: training faith leaders to identify legal issues and resources, referring clients to pro bono attorneys locally, hosting free legal advice clinics, and providing information to communities on common legal issues.
Given the shift to remote activities brought about by COVID-19, the alliance began with providing online resources and sharing pro bono opportunities tailored to legal needs during a pandemic, such as unemployment benefits, advance directives, and other COVID-19 related assistance. At the same time, the alliance surveyed local and faith communities about legal needs prevalent for them, allowing the space to share priorities for how the alliance should proceed. Further, the alliance established an email distribution list, which any member of the public can join, that will timely distribute pro bono and other legal resources, such as disaster legal preparedness, drivers license restoration eligibility, and small business and nonprofit legal assistance.
The Faith and Justice Alliance looks forward to learning about local legal issues from the perspective of faith communities. The alliance also looks forward to working collaboratively with its many partners across North Carolina, including legal service providers, public officials, law firms, and faith leaders. In the coming months, the alliance will provide information to faith leaders about identified substantive legal issues and the legal resources available to support them in those areas. It will also develop new legal resources, including pro bono clinic opportunities. While this work has already begun, the alliance looks forward to finding new ways to support faith communities in addressing the unmet legal needs of the too many North Carolinians living in poverty.