By Nancy Crist | Jul 8, 2016

JACKSONVILLE – More than 200 attorneys in the 4th Judicial Circuit were honored recently for the 2015 pro bono service they provided to vulnerable populations in northeast Florida during a luncheon at the Duval County Courthouse.

The 4th Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee and the Jacksonville Bar Association (JBA) Pro Bono Committee hosted the event, which was presided over by Judge Hugh Carithers, chair of the circuit committee. Bruce Blackwell, executive director of the Florida Bar Foundation, spoke on the importance of pro bono service in Florida and its impact on the individuals and families served. This was the first time an event has been held to honor circuit-wide pro bono work.

During ceremonies honorees came forward to receive a handshake and personal words of appreciation from 19 judges, an Outstanding Pro Bono Service lapel pin and letter of gratitude from Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga.  

The pro bono attorneys provided a minimum of 20 hours of service and are from Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, Guardian Ad Litem, 4th Judicial Circuit Office of Public Defender, Northeast Florida Medical Legal Partnership, JBA Attorney Ad Litem Pro Bono Project and Three Rivers Legal Services.

Kathy Para, director of pro bono at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, helped organize the event in her role as administrator of the 4th Judicial Circuit Pro Bono Committee and chair of the Jacksonville Bar Association Pro Bono Committee.

“Twenty-five attorneys provided more than 100 hours of service and many, many others provided well over 20 hours,” Para told the Florida Record. “At JALA, in 2015, pro bono attorneys provided more than 10,000 hours of service. That's a value of well over $2 million in legal services provided for low-income persons.”

Although each agency has its own way of recognizing its pro bono attorneys, the inaugural Presentation of the Pins event is a chance to gather together the organizations that support pro bono legal representation throughout the 4th Circuit.

“(It gives) the judges a chance to say a personal 'thank you' to the pro bono attorneys,” Para said. “It was very meaningful and meant so much to us all to be in one place acknowledging the amazing collective contributions of our wonderful pro bono ranks.”

Forty-four percent of households in northeast Florida are living at or slightly above poverty level. Statistics from United Way of Northeast Florida show that low-income families spend more than 80 percent of their budget on things like housing, food and health care. With so much of their income going to basic needs, low-income residents have no money for legal representation. These are often the community’s most vulnerable: people with disabilities, the elderly and single parents. Many times they are caught in a wrongful foreclosure, bankruptcy, abusive relationship or have been wrongfully denied benefits.

“It's critically important that persons on both sides of a legal matter are represented and that people involved in civil legal matters understand their best position and legal rights,” Para said. “If fairness in our judicial system is our standard, then all voices must be heard. We believe in liberty and justice for all, not just for those who can pay.”

In some instances pro bono attorneys are handling the same types of cases and outreach done by staff attorneys. At other times they may be filling in gaps in service due to lack of funding for staff attorney resources. This means some legal issues may only be addressed when volunteer attorneys are available.

“Pro bono attorneys ‘get it,’” said Para. “They give voice to those who would otherwise not be heard. They are heroes.” 

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