Pro Bono Programs in Alaska

"Pro Bono Programs in Alaska" by Justice Center, University of Alaska Anchorage. Alaska Justice Forum 27(2): 6–7 (Summer 2010). This article gives a history and overview of programs in Alaska which provide pro bono legal services — free legal representation — by volunteer attorneys to low-income persons.

The term “pro bono legal services” refers to free legal representation that is provided by volunteer attorneys, most often through a pro bono organization. The services may be full representation of a case or may involve discrete legal tasks or legal assistance with one phase of a matter. There is often confusion about the types of legal services provided by the different pro bono organizations in Alaska. Following is a brief history of the major pro bono programs in this state, and an overview of current pro bono programs with information on their purpose and contact details.

Brief History

The Alaska Legal Services Corporation (ALSC) was established in 1967 and did not have a formal pro bono program until 1983.   This original in-house component was called the Alaska Pro Bono Program (APBP) and was a joint effort with the Alaska Bar Association.  Funding was through ALSC and IOLTA (revenue generated by interest on lawyers’ trust accounts). APBP placed all types of cases with volunteer attorneys. In 2000, the Alaska Pro Bono Program left ALSC, re-opened as an independent entity, and accepted all types of pro bono cases.  APBP continued to handle pro bono cases for ALSC under a subgrant.

Loss of IOLTA funding in 2002 resulted in APBP only accepting pro bono cases that ALSC was restricted from handling, and ALSC resumed taking cases it was permitted to handle.  In 2010, APBP shifted its emphasis to placing a variety of pro bono unbundled legal services, i.e., discrete legal tasks rather than full representation of a case, with its volunteer attorneys.  This independent pro bono organization currently has a staff consisting of an Executive Director and one staff attorney, both of whom are part-time contractors.  There is no office; contact is through their website. 

By mandate, ALSC must still have its own pro bono component, and since 2002  has operated an  in-house pro bono program called the Volunteer Attorney Support Program coordinated by a Director of Volunteer Services and Community Support.  This program accepts civil cases and assigns them to volunteer attorneys; all clients must meet ALSC income eligibility guidelines. 

In 1999, the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (ANDVSA) Legal Advocacy Project (LAP) opened with a focus on assisting victims of violence against women. Since its inception, this effort has been continuously funded almost wholly by grants from the U.S. Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women. In addition, LAP has a family law self-represented litigants program in Fairbanks and works with the law firm of Borgeson & Burns to aid victims of domestic violence (DV) and sexual assault who are handling their own family law cases.

In 2004, the Alaska Bar Association Board of Governors provided for a full-time Pro Bono Director to work in partnership with legal services agencies in the state and with the Alaska Bar Pro Bono Services Committee. The focus is on building a statewide program that includes recruitment of volunteer attorneys, coordination among the providers, and overall advancement of the pro bono mission.

The Alaska Immigration Justice Project (AIJP) opened in 2005 and, among other services, offers pro bono representation for immigration asylum seekers. In conjunction with this project, the law firm of Ashburn & Mason provides free representation for undocumented children who are abused and neglected. In the 1980’s, the Immigration Justice Project was part of Catholic Social Services and in 1998 began taking asylum cases pro bono. This work transferred to AIJP when it opened.

There are other organizations that are not strictly pro bono agencies, but that do provide advocacy assistance, or in some cases, direct legal services at no charge. These include the Disability Law Center of Alaska (DLC), funded by federal grants, which opened in 1977 and under federal law is the designated “Protection & Advocacy” agency in Alaska; the Alaska Court System Family Law Self-Help Center (FLSHC) which opened in 2001 and is a free statewide service for individuals representing themselves in domestic relations cases and is funded by the Court System; and the Alaska Native Justice Center (ANJC) which began offering legal advocacy services in 2007, and since 2009 has also offered attorney services for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. The focus of this project is on outreach to low-income Native persons, but attorney representation is not exclusively for Natives. Funding is through a grant by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Violence Against Women.

In addition to the major pro bono organizations noted above, there are other legal advocacy groups in Alaska that take a narrow range of cases that fall within their area of focus, such as civil liberties or Native law issues.