Whitfield speaks at White House forum

Blue Ridge Legal Services Executive Director John Whitfield was a panelist Tuesday at a White House forum examining the state of civil legal assistance for low-income Americans.  The forum was co-hosted by the Legal Services Corporation.

Whitfield said that the “double whammy” of severe cuts in both federal and IOLTA funding has forced the program to reduce its attorney staff by over one-third in the past year, while at the same time, the poverty population in the area served by BRLS grew by 42 percent.  Private attorneys who take cases pro bono “are doing some heavy lifting for us,” he said, “But the sobering fact is, our office is still turning away two or three times as many people as we can help.”

LSC President James J. Sandman, who moderated a panel of directors from LSC-funded programs, said “Blue Ridge exemplifies the value of strong partnerships between legal services programs and the private bar.  Their 30-year collaboration with the Harrisonburg- Rockingham Bar Association, through which 85 percent of the Association’s members handle pro bono cases, is a model for other legal aid programs that serve both small cities and rural areas.”

President Obama also spoke briefly at the forum, saying that the availability of civil legal assistance to low-income Americans is “central to our notion of equal justice under the law,” and pledging to be “a fierce defender and advocate” for legal services.

Other speakers at the forum included: U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder; Deputy Chief of Staff to the President Mark Childress; former Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh; U.S. Department of State Legal Advisor Harold Hongju Koh; Department of Veterans Affairs General Counsel Will A. Gunn; White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler; Justice Jess H. Dickinson of the Mississippi Supreme Court; Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan; American Bar Association President William T. Robinson; LSC Board Chairman John G. Levi and Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow, who is also vice chair of the LSC board.

Whitfield is one of six directors chosen from among the 135 organizations nationally that receive federal funding through LSC.  In addition to Virginia, other states represented on the panel were Arizona, Georgia, Ohio, Montana, and Washington.


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