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.

Reflections on Reentry Court

In the Sheller Center’s Federal Reentry Court clinic, supervised by attorney Maya Sosnov, students work with people who are returning from incarceration. Here are some excerpts from students’ comments about their experiences.

Brian Mahoney, on what students actually do:

Law students in the Reentry Court help relieve post-incarceration poverty. They assist participants to restore their driving privileges, reduce outstanding debt, establish affordable payment plans, combat identity fraud, and to challenge other legal barriers … Students also help restore participant dignity by forming meaningful relationships with participants and by advocating vigorously for their rights in private and public forums. You won’t save the world as a student advocate in the Reentry Program, but you will make a meaningful difference.

Stefanie Sherr, on a comment from a client:

One experience really stood out to me when I was helping one of the participants with an identity theft issue, and things were a bit frustrating and slow moving.  This  participant sent me a text message about how much he really appreciated my help, and I was really happy to be able to help him.

Nina del Valle, on trust:

New participants on their first day are asked to come up to a podium and speak to the judge. The last time this occurred for the participants was when they were being sentenced. Participants are often hesitant to trust the reentry team when they tell them that we are here to support their successful return into the community. Over time, you see the changes in the participants because … through our actions participants see that there can be another side to the criminal justice system that is here to help.

Sarah Figorski, on the obstacles facing returning citizens:

This experience has completely opened my eyes to the many legal roadblocks and personal setbacks that stand in a person’s way when reentering back into society. I have personally assisted clients in working through various issues in traffic court. I have handled trials, worked out agreements with the District Attorney, opened up old cases for appeal, and reduced ticket prices. I have assisted other clients with debt issues by performing extensive research for them to help them understand complicated issues that they would have otherwise been left to deal with on their own.

TJ Denley on the clients and on the significance of the experience:

I have done intakes and assessments, filed motions, developed strategy, and even argued in court for my client. I have met some amazing clients, men who want to change their life, so that instead of living the nightmare, they can begin to live the dream…. The clinical has given me a wider perspective on the criminal justice system, as well as more confidence in my ability to represent my clients.

And Laurel Kandianis on what matters:

The work of social justice does not always entail speaking to a large crowd or arguing in front of the Supreme Court… Sometimes it is about working to correct the small inequities unnoticed by the people who do not suffer them. In Reentry Court Clinic, my work has consisted of attempting to push back against these small inequities. I have spent most of my time in traffic court and on the phone with various Pennsylvania bureaucracies, attempting to weave through the maze of obstacles between my clients and their licenses.

Not having a license can cripple a person’s ability to re-integrate back into society after release from incarceration….  Working to help clients regain their licenses is not high-profile, ground-breaking work. But it is for that reason, I’ve come to believe, that the work is important.


Enforcing workplace laws

Philadelphia’s Office of Labor Standards has failed to vigorously enforce the city laws that protect workers. Philadelphia has enacted several progressive laws to protect workers, such as the law to combat wage theft, paid sick leave, and the new fair workweek ordinance. The Sheller Center, for example, worked with coalition partners on this issue of wage theft back in 2016. Yet the City so far has failed to actively work on the issue of wage theft. A combination of advocacy groups is meeting with the Office of Labor Standards to find ways for it to improve the implementation and enforcement of these laws, through community outreach, accessible complaint systems, and proactive enforcement.

Pa. Supreme Court should address ICE arrests at the courthouse

On January 30, 2019, the Sheller Center released Obstructing Justice: The Chilling Effect of ICE’s Arrests at Pennsylvania’s Courthouses. The report is authored by Patrick Gordon (’19), Kelley Grady (’19), and Shaqueil Stephenson (’19). The Philadelphia Inquirer, WHYY, and Slate cover the report, which explains how ICE arrests and court personnel collaboration with ICE has obstructed justice by instilling fears in immigrant communities about going to court. Over the course of the semester, the authors collected information from lawyers, legal services organizations, victim service advocates, and community based organizations across the state about this issue. The report not only finds incidents in 13 different counties across Pennsylvania but also details the ways in which court personnel could be involved in apprehending and arresting immigrants. In Philadelphia, Community Legal Services (CLS) has been leading the advocacy campaign with the First Judicial District.

Skit Written by Students to Discuss Philadelphia v. Sessions with New Sanctuary Movement’s Members

Peter Hyndman (2L) and Rafaela Uribe (2L), students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic, worked with New Sanctuary Movement (NSM) to help support their advocacy work on Philadelphia’s “sanctuary” policies. NSM approached the Sheller Center for Social Justice seeking a partnership to address Philadelphia’s problematic and continued collaboration with Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). Despite calling itself a “sanctuary city,” and even suing Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the Trump Administration’s attempts to defund “sanctuary cities,” Philadelphia’s policies have proven inadequate in protecting its immigrant residents from ICE. ICE has indiscriminately targeted Philadelphia residents––regardless of their time living in the U.S., employment status, or relationships to U.S. citizens––for removal from the U.S. A skit developed by the students helped NSM explain the lawsuit to its members.

[Photo Caption: Peter Hyndman (2L) playing Jeff Sessions]

Guest Post: Being a prepared and flexible advocate


Anne Bonfiglio & Imani Hudson-Hill, Advanced Clinic Students

This guest post comes from Imani Hudson-Hill, a third-year student in the Sheller Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. Of course, guest posts reflect the personal views of the authors; we welcome a diversity of viewpoints.

My law student partner and I recently represented a client at an arbitration hearing through the Sheller Center for Social Justice’s Advanced Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. Our client was a low-wage worker who had not been paid minimum wage and overtime by her former employer, for whom she worked for seven years. Her case had been ongoing for several years and she wanted a chance for her story to be heard — regardless of the hearing’s outcome.

I was tasked with cross-examining the opposing party with an interpreter. To prepare for my cross-examination, I looked through depositions and documents, then crafted short and leading questions that I hoped would result in admissions that supported our case theory.

The thing I did not anticipate was under what circumstances I would be conducting my cross-examination. Once it was time for my cross-examination, the arbitration had been in progress for approximately four hours and the panel was noticeably impatient. I wound up cutting a significant portion of my cross-examination on the spot because the witness was unable to read the documents that I’d planned to introduce, the interpreter’s clock was running out, and the room was filled with fatigued, hungry parties and panelists. Despite having to redesign my cross-examination on the fly, we received most of the admissions that we had anticipated.

Sifting through a three-year-old case file to prepare for the hearing then deviating from my prepared examination was a daunting and intimidating process. However, attending my first arbitration hearing was an invaluable experience that taught me the importance of being a prepared and flexible advocate. In the end, the panel ruled in favor of our client and ordered the opposing party to pay her the money she rightfully deserved.

Barriers persist for non-English speakers in Pennsylvania courts

Unfinished Business, a new report from the Sheller Center for Social Justice at Temple Law School and Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law reveals that in some Pennsylvania courts, non-English speakers may not receive interpretation assistance during their hearings. This report is a follow-up study to the Sheller Center’s 2014 survey of Pennsylvania’s magisterial district judge (MDJ) courts.

The study performed court observation in 19 MDJ courts in Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester counties. It found that the majority of courts observed failed to provide certified interpreters for civil hearings. Court staff also did not consistently provide interpreters when speaking with limited English proficient individuals at the front desk nor did they uniformly provide notice of the right to language services. A minority of courts, however, were observed to provide exemplary language services.

“What is most concerning about our results is the inconsistency between courts. This means that individuals with limited English proficiency have unequal opportunities to access and participate in court matters depending on their location,” commented Anne Bonfiglio, a 3L law student and co-author of the report.

Magisterial district judge courts are Pennsylvania’s “small claims” courts. Litigants in these courts frequently do not have attorneys. Without access to adequate interpretation, non-English speaking litigants cannot understand what is happening in their court case.

The study concludes that these variations among courts came from the lack of consistent procedures and the limited accountability for courts that fail to comply with state and federal law. Further, a judge’s personal commitment to and understanding of language services directly contributed to the quality of language services provided in the courthouse.

The study comes on the heels of a comprehensive statewide Language Access Plan issued by the Supreme Court in March 2017. In order for this statewide plan to be truly effective, this report calls for statewide training of court staff and judges as well as forceful monitoring and enforcement.


Responding to Charlottesville

The Temple Law Student Bar Association with the support of every Temple Law student organization and association issued a statement in response to the events in Charlottesville.  We at the Sheller Center for Social Justice share that statement here in support and solidarity with Temple Law students and our broader community.  We are honored to stand with these partners as we reject racism and white supremacy in all its forms and continue to work for social justice and equality in our society.

Charlottesville Statement

New “language access” plan for Pennsylvania courts

A 2015 report by the Sheller Center was part of the advocacy that led to this week’s announcement, by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, of a statewide “language access” plan for Pennsylvania courts.

The Center’s 2015 report, which focused on the state’s Magisterial District Justice courts, found that people with limited English proficiency (LEP) were sometimes expected to proceed without interpretation services, or with “help” from friends or family. The Center initiated its study after the ACLU filed two complaints with the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, highlighting the lack of access to interpreters by two litigants in the Pennsylvania courts. In response to the efforts of a coalition of advocates for LEP individuals, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts finally developed a plan that represents a big step forward for Pennsylvania.

The biggest challenge ahead will be implementation and monitoring of the plan in the state’s 60 judicial districts.  Sheller Center students are embarking on a follow-up project to the 2015 study to assess whether the language access needs of LEP individuals are, in fact, being met. “Our observations have shown the progress that courts have made towards providing language access services, but we have also identified many areas for growth,” said Lisa Burns, a 2L working on the project as part of the Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic.

Click here for a WHYY report summarizing the Supreme Court announcement.

A victory for families

Kameelah Davis-Spears, a Philadelphia parent, was stunned when her child was sent to a juvenile delinquency facility as the result of a fight in school. She got a second shock when, after his return home, she got a summons — for child support.

It turned out that the “child support” was money that she was going to have to pay the City to cover the cost of her son’s incarceration. Upset, she asked the City’s lawyer whether she should get legal advice. His reply, she said, made clear to her that she had better just start paying.

Fast forward through months of garnished wages, which put a hole in the family’s already-inadequate budget, to yesterday’s hearing before a committee of City Council. The hearing was prompted by the release of Double Punishment, a report by Justice Lab students Wesley Stevenson (3L), Kelsey Grimes (3L), and Sela Cowger (3L). With help from Prof. Colleen Shanahan, the students had conducted a months-long investigation on behalf of their client, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project.

Wes, Ms. Davis-Spears, Lauren Fine of YSRP, and others testified before a crowd of parents, child advocates, City officials, social service personnel, Sheller Center supporters (including Steve and Sandy Sheller), and others. Council members, who clearly saw the practice as unjust, expressed appreciation for the students’ work.

And the hearing brought one more surprise: an announcement by Cynthia Figueroa, Commissioner of the City’s Department of Human Services, that the City will put an end to the practice. As the witnesses and Council members pointed out, that announcement is only a first step; making sure that collection efforts actually stop will take work. But it’s a victory — and, in an era in which fines, fees, and forfeitures are exacting double and triple punishment from poor families, it’s national (as well as local) news.

At the end of a long day, Prof. Shanahan delivered her own verdict: “I’m so, so proud of our students.” So are all of us at the Sheller Center.