Access to justice in the time of COVID-19

The Center’s Access to Justice Clinic focuses on the civil justice gap – the fact that so many people who need help with important legal problems can’t get it. This spring, students examined a variety of innovative efforts to deliver help to unrepresented people, and also worked on two Philadelphia-based projects. (More on those projects, one of which looked at default judgments in eviction court, the other at public libraries as sources of legal information, in subsequent posts.)

But this also turned out to be the semester of COVID-19, which unexpectedly reinforced some of the clinic’s lessons. As state and federal courts issued order after order announcing special arrangements for urgent matters and postponing everything else, the limitations of our justice system stood out in bold relief. It is, after all, a system that’s heavy on personal appearances, crowded spaces, traditional but inefficient scheduling practices, and — still — a great deal of paper. And since it was simply impossible to continue normal operations under current circumstances, courts and administrative agencies ground to a quick and massive slowdown.

That would be a problem at any time, but it’s more so now, since the virus is producing a considerable increase in the numbers of people needing help with legal matters — unemployment, health care, housing, domestic violence, and more. The combination of backlogged courts and agencies, and an already underresourced legal aid system that could easily become further overwhelmed, creates a frightening prospect.

Yet there may also be seeds of hope here. For example, remote systems put in place during the pandemic may demonstrate their value and prove to be worth keeping in more normal times. While remote services must be carefully designed and are not appropriate for all situations, they can, as the National Center for State Courts argues, make court operations significantly more efficient and consumer-friendly — and, in some circumstances, navigable by litigants who lack access to full representation. Similarly, newly-improvised systems for handling urgent matters – such as new access points and modified procedures for people seeking protection from abuse orders – may turn out to be worth further development even after the pandemic has passed.

In this way, as students in the clinic were quick to note, the virus may be forcing reinvention in a field usually known for its strong adherence to tradition. And amid all the losses and sadness, that, at least, could turn out to be a good thing.

For more information on the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, click here.

Sheller Center Files Lawsuit about Family Detention in Berks County

The Sheller Center has filed a lawsuit against Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (DHS) claiming that it has unlawfully agreed to the continued operation of the family detention facility in Berks County. These agreements amount to an end run around the legal process for issuing a license that DHS must follow under Pennsylvania law for licensing facilities that hold children.

Emma Pajer (’20), who helped to draft the lawsuit, spoke at a press conference about the detention center. She told the gathered crowd yesterday, “[t]his lawsuit serves as a message that we won’t let DHS get away with not doing their job and ignoring their fundamental mission.”

While DHS initially denied Berks County’s license in 2016, that license has been tied up in an ongoing litigation battle for four years. Under Pennsylvania law, children cannot be held in a secure detention facility if they are under the age of nine or have not been alleged or adjudicated delinquent. By detaining migrant children – including children as young as three months old – the Berks County facility is operating in violation of Pennsylvania law.

In the meantime, Berks County applied for new licenses for 2017-2018, and 2018-2019. Instead of denying these licenses, DHS has simply stipulated to allow the facility to continue to operate under its 2016-2017 license. DHS’ actions have resulted in permitting Berks County to keep immigrant children locked in a facility, which the American Academy of Pediatrics states can cause psychological trauma and long-term mental health risks for children.

Co-counsel for the lawsuit includes Free Migration Project, Karen Hoffman (‘16), Carol Anne Donohoe (‘10), and ALDEA – The People’s Justice Center.

Judge Cites Sheller Report Granting Motion to Suppress and Terminate Immigration Proceedings

An Immigration Judge recently granted an immigrant’s motion to suppress and terminate proceedings after a local police officer made a basic traffic stop and then called ICE.  The court found that while the initial stop was lawful, the extension of the stop to interrogate the individual about their immigration status and to contact ICE violated the Fourth Amendment. It found that such violations were widespread based on a recently released report from the Sheller Center, called Interlocking Systems: How Pennsylvania Counties and Local Police Are Assisting ICE to Deport Immigrants. The court stated that that the report “allows the Court to reconsider its previous findings by demonstrating ICE’s concerted effort to encourage local law enforcement’s unconstitutional collaboration.” Considering this landscape, the Court found that the officer’s acts fit into a widespread pattern of misconduct.

Improving Enforcement of Worker Protection Laws

Today the Sheller Center released Enforcing Wins by Philly Workers: Transforming Laws on Paper into Real Change. The report focuses on how Philadelphia can make its worker protection laws more effective by improving their implementation and enforcement. The authors are Ryan Dickinson (‘21), Maria DiGeorge (‘21), and Kelly McGuire (‘20).

Over the course of the semester, the authors analyzed survey data from Philadelphia workers, collected by One Pennsylvania and Make the Road Pennsylvania, about their experiences with wage theft, sick leave, and work schedules. Further, they looked at what other cities are doing to more effectively enforce their worker protection laws. Philadelphia so far has fallen short of using its laws to protect workers, by failing to inform workers about their rights, help workers file complaints, and issue penalties against violating employers. The report recommends a series of changes, such as increasing staffing and funding, creating robust community partnerships, and engaging in the affirmative enforcement of worker protection laws.

“Supporting a right to counsel bill is the absolute least I can do”

That was the view expressed by Xavier O’Connor, a 3L student in the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, speaking before City Council yesterday during its consideration of an historic “right to counsel for low-income tenants” bill. Xavier and colleagues Julia Sheppard and Sarah Kim have spent the semester researching why so many landlord/tenant cases in Philadelphia result in default judgments  — which then lead quickly to eviction.

As Xavier explained: “Our research has shown tenants don’t know they are eligible for existing services, and often haven’t even been properly notified that they have been called to court. Our research has also shown that there are folks who used existing services from the Help Center on the day of their hearings but wish that they had had legal help beforehand.”

Temple Law, as Xavier pointed out, has a front-row view of Philadelphia’s eviction crisis: “As a Temple student, I walk through a North Philly neighborhood affected by eviction every single day. I see the consequences of displacement and how our legal system dramatically impacts these neighborhoods.”

The unanimous passage of the bill by Council yesterday follows several years of work by legal advocates (including Temple Law graduates Rahsheedah Phillips and Barrett Marshall), the Bar Association, and many others — and will lead to further work, since phasing in legal services will require time, training, and funding. In these efforts, Philadelphia will be able to share ideas and models with a growing number of other cities, including New York, San Francisco, Newark and Cleveland, that have adopted similar legislation.

Xavier summed up the reason for getting involved: “The legal landscape we [as law students] are entering soon is unfair but it does not have to be. It should not be. And I am here today to advocate for its change.”


Sheller Center grad to head DA’s worker protection unit

Danielle Newsome, Temple LS ’15, was among the first students to participate in the Sheller Center’s programs. Now, she’s in charge of a brand-new unit in the Philly DA’s office that will focus on protecting the rights of Philly workers. You can read about the new unit, and Danielle’s impressive public-interest background, here. Congratulations Danielle!

Welcome to Prof. Shanda Sibley

We’re excited to welcome Shanda Sibley, who joined the Sheller Center this fall as Assistant Clinical Professor of Law. Prof. Sibley’s clinic, which will start in the spring, will focus on collateral consequences for people involved in the criminal legal system. Collateral consequences are penalties imposed on people in addition to the official sanctions for their actions – e.g., loss of civil rights (such as the right to vote), restrictions on employment and housing, ineligibility for public benefits, mistreatment while in prison, fees and costs of all sorts, and much more.

These consequences, which number in the tens of thousands on both the state and federal level, affect people who are incarcerated as well as those who have returned from incarceration, and in some instances even apply to people who were not actually convicted of a crime. And predictably, poor communities and communities of color are most affected.

Prof. Sibley’s interests grow out of her practice as well as her scholarship. Before coming to Temple, she was an acting Assistant Professor and the Associate Director of Lawyering at New York University School of Law. Prior to that, she was an appellate public defender representing indigent criminal defendants in New York City. Her earlier experience includes litigation and transactional practice at two international law firms, and a clerkship for the Honorable Eric L. Clay of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

As Prof. Sibley points out, “When people are released from prison, we tell them that they need to change their lives in order to succeed. Then society puts thousands of roadblocks and barricades in their way, and yet we blame them when they fail again.” She is committed to trying to make change through policy advocacy and community engagement. We and our students are thrilled to have her with us and are looking forward to being involved with her clinic.

Center launches Access to Justice Clinic

What’s an important aspect of our legal system that law students typically don’t learn about? Here’s one: the fact that vast numbers of Americans deal with their civil legal problems without help from lawyers. In landlord-tenant matters, in family court, in consumer and benefits cases, and in many other critical situations, Americans now mostly go it alone.

This reality contrasts sharply with the world of the law school casebook, in which no one, it seems, goes through a legal process without a knowledgeable attorney at their side. For many reasons — including high fees, the shortage of legal aid and pro bono help, the increasing complexity of laws and procedures, and more – that’s just not how our system actually works these days.

Enter the civil “access to justice” movement, which seeks to ensure that America’s justice systems work for everyone – not just those with high incomes. And enter the Sheller Center’s Access to Justice Clinic, launched this fall. In this clinic, six students are engaging in hands-on projects addressing access-to-justice problems in Philly. One project concerns the difficulty that unrepresented Philadelphians have in getting even a simple divorce. Another involves the high number of default judgments in landlord-tenant court, which result in evictions without the court ever hearing the (typically unrepresented) tenant’s side of the story.

It’s too early to say where the students’ work will lead, but the Clinic is off to a good start. The new clinic is just our most recent attempt, by the way, to engage students in improving access to justice in Pennsylvania (see our work on fair treatment for non-native speakers of English in court proceedings for another example). We hope you’ll check back as the year progresses to learn more about our Access to Justice Clinic and other projects.