W&L Project Focuses on Legal Services for the Poor

Lexington, VA Friday, May 07, 2010

Chris Pratt '10L
Do the poor have adequate representation in Virginia's legal system? It's a question third-year law students and undergraduates involved in W&L's Shepherd Poverty Program are trying to answer.

"In several reports, the American Bar Association has raised concerns about the number of persons eligible for civil legal assistance who are unable to obtain it," explained Mary Natkin '85L, assistant dean for clinical education and public service. "This project will survey Virginia's state courts to see who was unrepresented in civil matters."

Chris Pratt '10L, one of several students working on the project, noted, "There really isn't any data at all on this question, but it's a really interesting one. We'd like to know how many people are under-represented and how does that affect them? How does that make them feel about how the justice system works?"

Partnering with Blue Ridge Legal Services and the Office of the Secretary for the Virginia State Supreme Court, the team began by crafting surveys for observers, defendants, litigants and judges.

"Since no one had done this before, we had to invent this from scratch," said Pratt. "It took us all of fall term to draft the instruments, send them out for feedback, make the adjustments and then get them signed off on. There was a lot of starting and stopping as we figured out what we wanted to accomplish."

The team also completed ethical training with W&L's Institutional Research Board to comply with federal regulations.

This spring, students sat in on cases in the Buena Vista Circuit Court and tested one of their surveys. "We only saw two under-represented cases, so we don't have a lot of data to work with yet," said Pratt. "But now that the bugs are worked out, we expect to kick into gear very quickly."

Eventually, Pratt hopes the answers to these questions will help guide policy. "Some people feel you can spend a lot of money for a lawyer or try and muddle through on your own, but get hosed either way. I'd like to help those people feel that justice serves them, not that they are servants of the system. The data we get will help Virginia see where changes are needed and improve its judicial system."

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