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Access to Justice Partnership Helps Low-Income Charlottesville Residents Navigate Legal Hurdles

In its first two years, the Access to Justice Partnership – which pairs University of Virginia law students with local attorneys to provide free legal services to low-income, Charlottesville-area residents – has already assisted about 294 clients, benefiting nearly 700 household members in the community.

The partnership has thus far represented clients in cases involving matters such as voting rights and driver’s license restoration, housing, unemployment, bankruptcy, no-fault divorce, estate planning and immigration assistance, said Carolyn Kalantari, the attorney at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville who supervises the Access to Justice Partnership caseload.

“By partnering with law students and the private bar, legal aid is able to significantly expand the number of clients it can serve,” she said. “The clients get good quality representation and really appreciate the time and attention that the students dedicate to their legal problem.”

Access to Justice is collaboration among the U.Va. School of Law, the Legal Aid Justice Center, Central Virginia Legal Services and the Charlottesville-Albemarle Bar Association. The partnership launched in 2011 with a $150,000, two-year grant from the Jessie Ball duPont Fund.

The partnership has recruited 89 lawyers to volunteer, and 74 law students have participated by volunteering more than 3,200 hours.

“The partnership is a wonderful opportunity for our students who seek high-quality, pro bono projects that allow for direct client interaction,” said Kimberly Emery, assistant dean for pro bono and public interest at the Law School. “Our challenge is meeting this demand with enough attorney-supervised opportunities for the student volunteers. [The Access to Justice Partnership] has allowed us to meet this challenge through collaboration with legal services as well as with members of the private bar. It is a model project that hopefully can be replicated in other parts of the state.”

As part of the project, first-year law student Sam Shirazi helped assist clients with filing applications for the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival program, an Obama administration program meant to keep immigrant residents who were brought to the United States as children from being deported, if they meet certain criteria.

“It was an amazing opportunity as a 1L to interact directly with a client,” Shirazi said. “Legal Aid would do the initial screening, and we were just kind of thrown in, asking them if they meet basic requirements and trying to find out if there were any issues.

Working under the supervision of several local attorneys, Shirazi said Access to Justice provided him with many occasions to interact with clients.

Shirazi, a naturalized citizen who was brought to the U.S. from Iran at age 1, said it was satisfying to help others navigate the often-cumbersome immigration process.

“I had to go through the whole immigration process, and I realized the immigration system has a lot of issues,” he said. “Especially if you don’t know English, or don’t know the system, it’s very difficult. So it felt good to help others with their immigration.”

Second-year law student Mario Salas has primarily been helping clients with driver’s license restoration since the partnership’s launch.

He worked under the supervision of retired prosecutor and Litigation and Housing Law Clinic co-instructor Richard Trodden to help a man who, for many years, biked to work from Fluvanna County to Charlottesville – a 20-mile commute – often in the early morning hours and in poor weather conditions, having lost his license amid unpaid court fees.

“If you’re trying to maintain 10 different payment plans at one time, and each of them is $20, suddenly you have a $200-a-month bill,” Salas said. “That’s more than you’re paying for your groceries and electricity.”

Salas did the research required to set up the client’s payment plan and petition, while then-student volunteer Tom Perez-Lopez (who graduated in 2012 and is now working as a clerk in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia) represented the client in court last year under Trodden’s supervision. Trodden said the client’s petition was unopposed, and Perez-Lopez satisfied all of the judge’s expectations in the successful plea.

“All I had to do was sit beside [Perez-Lopez] in court,” Trodden said.

Trodden added that the client has since acquired a vehicle, found a new job and moved to another state, but none of that may have been possible without the students’ persistence.

“The key to the case was the two law students kept in touch with the client and kept working with him,” Trodden said. “They kept him informed and aware of the court schedule and timing, and would actually pick him up when he needed to go a hearing.”

Access to Justice, Kalantari said, has helped strengthen bonds between the dedicated student volunteers and the local community.

“The value to our community in exposing prospective new lawyers to the many legal and social challenges experienced by low-income members of our community is significant,” she said. “[Access to Justice Partnership] cases tend to be compelling, legally and factually, and have the power to redefine for students what constitutes ‘meaningful work.’”

– by Eric Williamson

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