Attend the next Charlotte ACLU Meeting!

September 30, 2014

The Homeless Prevention Team of the Charlotte ACLU, in cooperation with Legal Aid of North Carolina, will provide the programming for the ACLU’s general meeting on October 5th at Unitarian Universalist Church of Christ at 7:00 p.m.   The Charlotte ACLU’s general meetings are open to the public and the public is encouraged to attend.

At the meeting, District Court Judge Rebecca Tin will present her perspective on the courtroom process where tenants at risk of losing their home must represent themselves without an attorney.  Former Civil Rights Clinic member and current Legal Aid staff member, Isaac Sturgill, and Shanae Auguste from Legal Aid will join her in that presentation.  They will show a film that depicts a woman facing eviction and how she prepares for her court appearance.  Following the presentation will be a question and answer session.

For more information:  http://www.aclu-charlotte.org/events.html.


Passion in the Law: Interning in Costa Rica with an Unexpected Ending

September 29, 2014

By: Brandon Pierce

Many law students are not sure which legal path they wish to pursue.  Until recently, I was one of those students, searching for my passion within the law.  Fortunately, I found that passion 5,000 miles away nestled in a Costa Rican rainforest.

THE REPUBLIC OF COSTA RICA

Home of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Costa Rica is a pluricultural and multiethnic country with a diversity of scenery, languages, and people.  [1]  But with that diversity comes an assortment of communal problems with generational impacts.  Those problems need attention, which is why I decided to work in such a diverse country.

Brandon on the judges’ bench at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Brandon on the judges’ bench at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

DIVING IN HEADFIRST

I had the privilege this summer to intern with the C.R. Office of the Ombudsman, a public institution that protects the rights of Costa Rica’s citizens.  My assignments dealt with citizens’ rights in four areas: (1) education, (2) disability, (3) LGBTQ relations, and (4) minority groups, e.g. afro-descendants, indigenous tribes, etc.  My first day on the job included meeting with community leaders and attending sessions to educate citizens on the laws that impact them.  Work within these areas included visiting rural towns on high mountain peaks, interviewing foreign diplomats, and even sitting before the seven judges of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

THE UNEXPECTED “AHA!” MOMENT

Costa Rica consists of eight indigenous groups that inhabit twenty-four territories and utilize seven legally recognized languages.  It wasn’t until I reached the small indigenous community of Shiroles that I realized the power of passion.  As my colleagues and I found ourselves trekking through a muddy Costa Rican rainforest, I never expected to find that “aha!” moment that inspired my future career path.

A bridge leading into the Shiroles Community.

A bridge leading into the Shiroles Community.

Man-made houses, handwoven clothing, and raw nature made up the community I visited.  Instantaneously upon arrival, community leaders, students, and parents assembled to hear our group.  These individuals were concerned for the future of their community.  They wanted to voice their concerns on the threat of losing their culture, the contamination of their natural resources, and the government’s illegal deprivation of their land.  My job was to document their stories and educate them on the law that protects their culture.  Their stories involved matters we take for granted or may never experience.  In many instances, indigenous students are prohibited from using their native language in school, many domestic violence disputes go unreported, and agricultural companies pollute the natural water sources used to nourish communities.  Most indigenous communities inhabit their lands without legal title, that is, a government-issued document that demonstrate they own land.  Their lack of title is reasonable considering they have inhabited these lands for centuries, even before any form of government existed.

This lack of legal title makes these communities vulnerable to unlawful foreclosures.  Consequently, foreign corporations, tourists, and even the government, has illegally taken land from indigenous territories to develop more infrastructure.  This information we gathered was used to draft a complaint against the government.  Most of my initial interactions with the Shiroles people consisted of me speaking and receiving confused, unwelcoming stares in return.  Though discouraging at times, I continued to work with the people and tried to make some sort of connection.  After working for a week in the community, something remarkable happened on the last day.

Brandon interacting with members of the Shiroles community.

Brandon interacting with members of the Shiroles community.

That day a student pulled me aside.  He explained to me the struggles of growing up feeling this his government does not care about his culture, ancestral history, or rights as a living being.  In the end, the student thanked me for being “a voice for us who have no voice.”  I was speechless.  The gratitude and satisfaction in knowing that I helped make a difference in someone’s life stays with me today.  With that humble encounter, I realized how I wanted to move my legal career forward.  It was there that I determined I would be a human rights attorney, a voice for those without a voice.

ADVICE FOR CAREER PASSION SEEKERS

Oprah Winfrey once said, “Passion is energy.  Feel the power that comes from focusing on what excites you.”

This euphoric quotation informs us all that our energy is derived from our passion.  If you believe the author, you would agree that without passion there can be no energy.   In a field that requires long work hours, such as law, there is undoubtedly a great amount of energy required.  Therefore, finding passion in one’s work is imperative.

I was privileged to sit with indigenous people, converse with community elders and sing with school children.  I was so blessed by those encounters while interning abroad and received more than I think I gave to them.

Brandon touring the Shiroles indigenous community.

Brandon touring the Shiroles indigenous community.

I discovered that we are more alike than different, full of compassion rather than hate, and full of peace, not violence.  Through this internship, I discovered that human rights can awaken us to the power and worth of our own lives.  Then, it is our responsibility to use that power to fulfill our life’s purpose.

Ask yourself:  What job excites me?  What is the one thing I can’t stop thinking about?  An even harder question: If I had to do it for free, would I still do it?  Your passion lays in the answers to those questions.  My experiences in the Shiroles community helped to find my answers.  What will it take for you to find yours?

As you step onto your mark, and get set to find your career passion, there is only one thing left to say as you take the first step.  “Go!”


Domestic Violence and the NFL

September 22, 2014
The NFL has been facing intense criticism in the media following recently uncovered video footage of NFL player Ray Rice hitting his then-girlfriend.  The public is not happy with how the NFL originally handled the allegations of abuse when they arose last February.  Due to this overwhelming negative publicity, NFL teams have been tightening their policies regarding domestic abuse, many of them retrospectively.
One such NFL team is the Carolina Panthers.  WFAE reported Thursday that Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy will not play until his domestic violence appeal has been resolved.  A judge found Hardy guilty of two counts of domestic violence in July and he is now awaiting a jury trial.  Charlotte School of Law Professor Christopher Woodyard offered his legal expertise to WFAE in reporting the story.
Listen in to WFAE’s account of the Greg Hardy story here: http://wfae.org/post/panthers-hardy-wont-play-until-domestic-violence-case-resolved.

Student-Run Civil Rights Clinic Strikes Again in Mecklenburg County!

September 11, 2014

By Gatlin Groberg

Beginning in the fall of 2013, helping clients file certificates of relief (COR) has evolved from a passionate idea into one of the top projects of the Charlotte School of Law Civil Rights Clinic (CRC).  A COR is the product of a relatively new law in North Carolina.  It is a judge-signed document that individuals with criminal records can present to prospective employers proving that they’ve made amends for their past actions.  Many qualified individuals are turned away from jobs due to their criminal record.  A COR helps individuals obtain employment in two ways.  First, a COR encourages employers to hire qualified individuals by barring negligence claims brought against the employer.[1]  What this means is that if an employer is sued over the negligent actions of one of its employees, the employer will not be held civilly liable.

Second, a COR is designed to remove the collateral consequences associated with a criminal conviction.[2]  For example, a COR has the ability to restore professional licenses that were taken away due to conviction of a crime.  For individuals who are trained and skilled in certain areas, but are barred from practicing in those areas due to revocation of their professional license, a COR may be their only chance to work in the area they trained for.  Another collateral consequence that may be restored is qualification for public housing, something many low-income individuals in Mecklenburg County rely upon.

Since its inception, the student-run CRC has strived to help those with criminal convictions obtain the life they want.  The CRC is fresh off its victory in the Ban the Box campaign. The CRC achieved national recognition after convincing the Charlotte City Council to remove the box off of employment applications asking whether the applicant has been convicted of a crime.  While the CRC continues its success with Ban the Box, CORs are now just the next step for the CRC to help qualified individuals obtain employment.

Pictured left to right: Emily Ray, Tierra Ragland, Professor Jason Huber, Daniel Melo, Gatlin Groberg celebrate at the Mecklenburg County Courthouse after their victory in District Court.

This past spring, former CRC student and recent Charlotte School of Law graduate, Emily Ray, created the CRC’s handbook for helping clients apply for CORs.  Emily’s hard work has paid off.  On August 5, 2014, the CRC successfully won its first COR on behalf of one of its clients.  The victory was a huge win for the CRC and also established precedent as the CRC is one of just a handful of advocates in Mecklenburg County to successfully file a COR action.  Under the supervision of Professor Jason Huber, returning CRC student, Tierra Ragland, represented a client before district court Judge Theo Nixon.  With Judge Nixon’s final words, “Your certificate of relief has been granted,” the CRC chalked up its first of many victories to come on behalf of those striving to obtain employment with a criminal background.  Our client can now present the newly granted COR before any prospective employer to greatly improve their chance of being hired.

The CRC expects to file many more COR actions in the upcoming months.  For updates on our work with CORs and helping those convicted of a past crime obtain employment, keep reading the blog and listening to The Legal Dose – we’ll see you next time!

[1] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A-173.5 (In a judicial or administrative proceeding alleging negligence, a Certificate of Relief is a bar to any action alleging lack of due care in hiring, retaining, licensing, leasing to, admitting to a school or program, or otherwise transacting business or engaging in activity with the individual to whom the Certificate of Relief was issued).

[2] N.C. Gen. Stat. § 15A 173.2(d).


Mecklenburg Serves Those Who Serve Themselves

September 4, 2014

By: Tierra Ragland

One of the mission pillars of the Charlotte School of Law is to serve the community.  Part of that mission focuses on access to justice for traditionally underserved populations. This population is, generally, low-income.  The clinical legal education, the student Pro-Bono projects, and the Access to Justice Immigration and Self Help Center courses all provide opportunities for students to gain valuable experience and provide access to justice to the local community.  As a member of the Civil Rights Clinic and a student who has taken both Access to Justice courses, I have valued these experiences. They have helped shape my passion for service to the community and encouraged me to pursue a career in public interest. 

As a part of the Access to Justice: Self Help Center course, students have to complete thirty hours working in the Mecklenburg County Courthouse Self Serve Center and teach a community legal clinic to deliver information to self-represented litigants in preparation for divorce and child custody cases.  As law students, we are not allowed to give legal advice. However, we provide much-needed legal information to individuals who are not represented by attorneys for various reasons; one of the most common reasons being lack of financial resources.  

Access to Justice can include a variety of issues, such as not being able to afford an attorney, lack of access to legal information in your native language, lack of transportation, lack of understanding of legal process, and not being able to afford a certified copy of your criminal record, which costs twenty-five dollars.

Mecklenburg County is the only judicial district in the state that provides a self-serve center. The Mecklenburg County Courthouse, where the Self Serve Center is located, is in North Carolina’s 26th Judicial District.  The District takes a unique approach to Access to Justice by being the only judicial district in the state that houses a self-serve center to provide assistance to pro se individuals in family law cases and a variety of other legal issues.  The Self Serve Center is located on the third floor of the courthouse and is open Monday- Friday from 8:30am-12:00pm. The Self-Serve Center provides packets of legal information/documents, monthly free legal clinics, access to online research tools, educational videos, information on court processes, a list of attorneys who provide unbundled legal services,[i] and an attorney for the day program. [1]  The filing fees for packets provided by the self-serve center range from $0-$225.

There is no state or local funding dedicated to operating the Self Serve Center and as a result there are no guarantees for the stability and continued operation of the center. The Family Court Division supplies resources to operate the Self-Serve Center, and the Self-Serve Center Coordinator manages the Center and is its only full-time staff member.  The Center depends on interns and volunteers to provide the services needed.  In 2013, forty-seven interns and two notaries, all of whom provided their time on a volunteer basis maintained the Self Serve Center.  In 2013, the notaries and interns contributed a total of 3,784 hours, so it is vital that this volunteerism continues.

As a student volunteering with the center, my overall experience has been rewarding. I have been exposed to a diverse group of people, diverse legal issues, court process, and legal documents that I would not have been exposed to during my legal education. 

The majority of the community members I assisted utilized the Self Serve Center due to a lack of financial resources.  Some self-represented individuals are overwhelmed by the process of representing themselves and approach the center volunteers and interns with a wide range of emotions.  Individuals have approached me very angry but also very grateful that the Self Serve Center is there to assist them with their legal needs. As a volunteer I was provided with a “cheat sheet” detailing the center’s most popular packets and important questions to ask to effectively assist those who utilize the center. On my first day a the center I was give a sample divorce and child custody packet and had to go through all the steps an actual self-represented litigants would go through to complete, including notarizing and filing the documents.

The Self Serve Center states that they provide legal information on family law issues and other legal issues—which includes “all” other legal issues. On my first day at the Center, someone asked me for legal information on Rule 60 (a), Motion for Clerical Mistake.[ii] Having taken Civil Procedure, I was familiar with the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rule 60, however, I struggled to convey this information to someone who was not an attorney. This was not on the cheat sheet. This is an example of the wide variety of legal information requested at the Center and how non-attorney volunteers, who cannot provide legal advice, have to convey the information in a way that the average self-represented litigants will understand. 

During my time at the Center I have also encountered solo practitioners who utilize the services of the Self Serve Center. This is an example of the rising cost of litigation and starting a solo practice.  Even attorneys are taking advantage of the free services provided by the 26th Judicial District.

Providing Access to Justice through the Self Serve Center can bridge the gap between effective legal solutions and underserved populations. Having a program like the Self Serve Center also shows the community that the legal profession is invested in serving the underserved and vulnerable populations that have traditionally had barriers affect their access to justice.

By no means does the Self Serve Center solve all the issues surrounding access to justice but it is an effective leap in the right direction.

[1] http://www.meckbar.org/publicprograms/pp_vol_landing.cfm

[i]http://www.americanbar.org/publications/gp_solo/2012/september_october/law_a_la_carte_case_unbundling_legal_services.html

[ii]http://www.ncga.state.nc.us/EnactedLegislation/Statutes/PDF/BySection/Chapter_1A/GS_1A-1,_Rule_60.pdf


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