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Legal Aid Vet Bergmark Dishes On Rising Up For Civil Justice

By RJ Vogt | April 21, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

Martha Bergmark, executive director of Voices for Civil Justice, aims to raise the profile of America's civil legal aid crisis.


In March, when President Donald Trump proposed defunding Legal Services Corp. for the third straight year, former LSC President Martha Bergmark wasn't worried.

She felt confident that legislators from both sides of the aisle would continue to support America's single largest provider of federal civil legal aid funding, in keeping with their decisions to increase the LSC budget in 2017 and 2018. Still, the repeated calls to cut the program are emblematic of what Bergmark considers a larger problem.

"American voters really have very little concept of what the civil justice system even does ... or what civil legal aid is and why it matters," she told Law360 in a recent interview.

This lack of awareness hits close to home for Bergmark, whose 45-year career has included starting a Mississippi legal aid office, working at the National Legal Aid and Defenders Association and running the LSC. Her current project, Voices for Civil Justice, is a "national communications initiative" that aims to raise the profile of civil legal aid by helping journalists and advocacy groups highlight flaws in the civil justice system.

The idea is to make people as upset about low civil representation rates as they are about high criminal incarceration rates. Last month, Voices launched All Rise for Civil Justice, a platform providing stories of people about the people enmeshed in the world of bankruptcy, debt-collection, divorce, tenant-landlord disagreements, child custody battles, benefits challenges and more.

Bermark spoke with Law360 about her take on the funding battle at her former post and why projects like All Rise for Civil Justice are crucial to getting the word out about the struggles of those who face everyday legal problems without lawyers to help them.

This year the White House proposed defunding the Legal Services Corp. for the third straight year. As a former president of the LSC, are you concerned?

We cannot fulfill America's promise of justice for all without providing assistance in the civil justice system. It has consequences in real people's lives just as criminal justice does. Even people who oppose the federal funding don't say, "oh there should be no legal help." They just want folks to get it some other way.

The federal funding has been one source of important for civil legal aid programs for 50 years now. Even though the trajectory of funding has gone up and down, and even though yes, the Trump administration called for ending the federal funding, that's very unlikely to happen. There's just such a strong history of bipartisan support that it's going to be funded.

What about those who say legal aid should be state funded or even provided by private volunteers as pro bono work?

For the last 20 or 30 years we've seen states begin to step up. State governments, I think, were starting to say "yeah, you know, we're an equal partner in this as well." That history is shorter and it's not as well established as federal funding — we see stark disparities in the amount of state funding from one state to another depending on the history.

State funding is going to have to continue to step up and be in there as a partner, just as I think private support is going to need to be a partner there. But to actually stop this larger justice problem, we're going to need all the possible funding partners in there, including federal funding.

Even though the federal government's commitment is not enough on its own, it is the bedrock on which the rest of the system is built.

You recently wrote an essay for the National Center for Access to Justice, advising the civil justice reform movement to take cues from the criminal justice reform movement. What do you mean by that?

The civil and the criminal justice system are not two separate silos. These are very interconnected systems, and they affect the very same people and families.

So I think what's helpful to our cause is the attention to the criminal justice system and being able to say, if what a person needs to re-enter society after getting out of prison is to expunge a criminal record or to get employment or get housing, well, those are things that happen on the civil justice side of the system.

The criminal justice reform conversation gives us an opportunity to bring attention to how to fix the civil side.

What should people be expecting from All Rise for Civil Justice?

It's a resource for our advocacy community to begin to sing from the same song sheet and sing more in unison and more powerfully to get the word across that there's a crisis in the civil justice system.

Our bread and butter is that we want to push out a media pipeline of stories and op-ed pieces and letters to the editor and interesting columnists and editorial boards in to begin really using the criminal justice advocacy effort as a model to bring attention to what's going on in the civil side.

The resources on this site include a video about Bill, a veteran in Los Angeles who almost lost his home because he wasn't able to get the veterans benefit he was entitled to until he had help from a medical legal partnership at his local VA medical center. We also have a photo essay about Sonia, a North Carolina tenant who was able to avoid eviction with the help of a legal aid lawyer, and finally a sort of "day in the life" testimony from a legal aid lawyer named Andrea in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

How dd you come up with the idea of All Rise for Civil Justice?

The bad news is that American voters really have very little idea of what the civil justice system even does, or what civil legal aid is and why it matters.

But once you clue people in to the kinds of cases the civil justice system handles, ones that are key to people's lives, then people really are uniformly supportive. Voters strongly believe that equal justice under law is important. The idea that everyone should have access. We have a receptive audience if we just get the word out.

All Rise is our effort to do that: we have a wonderful network of about 1,500 advocates for civil liberties and civil justice reform from every state in the country. We are attempting to explain why there is a crisis, the fact that the civil justice system doesn't work for everybody. It works if you've got money and power and a lawyer by your side. But it really doesn't work for everyone else.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Have a story idea for Access to Justice? Reach us at accesstojustice@law360.com.