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Pro bono program is helping fill a critical access-to-justice gap

In theory, all litigants have the right to appeal a trial court’s ruling in a civil case. In practice, appeals are expensive, so many people have no realistic way of exercising this right—unless they can find help.

Take one typical case. More than a decade ago, a Durham County woman inherited a house and the mortgage that came with it. She fell on hard times and is facing foreclosure after a trial court ruled that the lienholder is entitled to collect on the defaulted loan.

Matt Krueger-Andes of Fox Rothschild, who is representing the woman pro bono, said that the loan has been passed from bank to bank. He appeared before the state’s Court of Appeals to argue that the current lienholder doesn’t legally hold the note.

“She’s in a tough position because she wants to pay her mortgage,” Krueger-Andes said. “It’s not like she just wasn’t making payments, she just found herself in certain difficult circumstances.”

The client found Krueger-Andes through the North Carolina Pro Bono Appellate Program, a collaboration between the pro bono committees of the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Bar Association’s Appellate Practice Section. The program began in 2018 and provides a volunteer attorney to pro se litigants with cases before the state’s Court of Appeals or Supreme Court. Troy Shelton, also of Fox Rothschild, helped form the program and serves as co-chairman along with Taylor Crabtree of the state Attorney General’s Office.

Before joining, volunteer attorneys undergo mandatory training to ensure that they’re prepared to handle all aspects of the appellate process. There are currently more than 40 attorneys on the volunteer list, and about 15 cases have been assigned. So far, the program has encountered legal issues such as unemployment benefits, prisoner tort claims, driver’s license revocation, and domestic violence.

Cases must be referred by one of the appellate courts. Once a court reviews a case and determines that a litigant is eligible, it decides whether to refer the case to the program. If the litigant consents to pro bono representation, the court contacts the program, which assigns an attorney. If the attorney accepts a case, their duties can range from writing amicus briefs to conducting oral arguments, and they’re required to handle the case through the appellate process for the court that refers it.

Erik Zimmerman of Robinson Bradshaw, who is experienced in appellate litigation, didn’t travel far outside his wheelhouse in accepting an assignment in which he was appointed as an amicus by the Court of Appeals in a case where personal jurisdiction was at issue. The case is now before the state Supreme Court, and Zimmerman is representing the plaintiff. He enjoys the “especially impactful” pro bono work and said that the case, a question of due process and constitutional limits on jurisdiction, and others like it can not only benefit a specific client but also help shape the law going forward.

Zimmerman said the program helps bridge the gap between criminal cases and parental rights cases that grant the right to appointed counsel, and other cases that do not.

“You can have a civil case where you have a really strong claim, but you can’t afford to get a lawyer to make it,” he said. “And there wasn’t much coverage for that.”

Daniel Gibson was in the market for pro bono work when he was asked to represent a Wake County woman fighting for custody of her children. Gibson, of the Stam Law Firm in Apex, enthusiastically accepted the Court of Appeals case, which ultimately made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Krueger-Andes, the attorney appealing the foreclosure, is thankful for the opportunity and believes that more attorneys will get involved if they become aware of the program.

“The easier it is for firms to take on the opportunities, the easier it is to get them in the pipeline,” he said. “There is a lot of willingness to do the work, it’s just a matter of how you get involved.”

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