SPRINGFIELD, MA (06/25/2021) During a year of unforeseen challenges, the Western New England University Center for Social Justice (CSJ) maintained its mission and commitment to the community, to strengthen collaborative efforts between the School of Law and the region. Under the direction of CSJ Director Ariel Clemmer, and delivering on the CSJ’s endeavor to enrich the rigorous education and practical training that the School of Law provides, 225 volunteers came together, tallying over 3,600 hours, to collectively provide nearly $750,000 in free legal services through virtual programming and pro bono initiatives.
The volunteer workforce was comprised of WNE students, faculty, alumni, and community members with the financial support of donors and sponsors including the MassMutual Law Department’s Pro Bono Committee, the MassMutual Foundation, Health New England, the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, MAIA Organics, and the Law School Admission Council (LSAC).
The following includes a brief summary and celebration of 2020-21 academic year initiatives and projects. The total funds saved by clients through these programs was calculated based on the average billing of $200 an hour for non-attorney, paralegal, and associate level services in western Massachusetts.
Sealing and Expungement Initiative
This past April, in association with National Expungement Week, the CSJ hosted three virtual Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) Clinics and a virtual expungement and record sealing event. Through all virtual event offerings, community members were given the opportunity to learn more about accessing, expunging, and sealing their own records. Attorneys, activists, and expert volunteers were available to answer questions and provide free pro-bono legal services in private breakout rooms.
Through this initiative, 75 attendees participated and engaged with 17 legal/CORI Clinic volunteers.
A complimentary virtual event, hosted by Access to Justice Fellow Attorney Crispin Birnbaum, was also offered to more than 80 volunteers and attorneys to provide legal training and preparation tips and tools for reviewing client records and meeting with clients.
Consumer Debt Initiative
Since October 2020, over 220 clients were served through the Consumer Debt Initiative (CDI). The CDI, funded by the MassMutual Foundation in association with the Live Mutual Project, provides the opportunity for CSJ volunteers to assist defendants facing wrongful credit card collection actions in virtual small claims Zoom sessions at the Springfield District Court.
To assist community members fighting for justice against the debt collection industry, volunteers were available every Friday to attend court, conduct client intakes, negotiate settlements, seek dismissals for hardship, and go to “trial” in small claim hearings. Additionally, clients were provided guidance regarding their legal rights as well as access to financial literacy resources.
Through this initiative, over 220 defendants have been served since the courts reopened, virtually, in late September 2020.
The Cost of Gun Violence in Springfield Project
In collaboration with a local activist group, Greater Springfield Nonviolence, The Cost of Gun Violence in Springfield Project examines gun violence in the city. Through research with the CSJ, Greater Springfield Nonviolence will submit a proposal to city council and the mayor seeking changes in the allocation and distribution of anti-violence funds. Completion of the report is anticipated by the middle of July.
Racial Justice Sentencing Project(s)
In partnership with the Committee for Public Counsel Services (CPCS) and a number of private children and family law attorneys, the CSJ is collecting research and data to explore the issue of racially disparate sentencing outcomes and court involvement for people of color in the community.
The data-driven and research-based projects are currently ongoing and will result in a report of findings and recommendations for change.
Addressing Racism as a Social Determinant of Health Through Restorative Racial Healing Dialogue
In February, the CSJ was awarded a $6,000 Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) mini-grant from Health New England. Grant funds will be utilized to provide education and resources to local non-profit organizations, that are active in addressing racial health equity, disparities, and at least one of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Social Determinants of Health (SDOH).
The grant will be utilized to deliver a two-part program beginning this month. The project, intended as a pilot program to determine best practices and outcomes, will be completed by June 2021.
More information about the grant announcement and the CSJ partnership with Health New England is available through WNE University News.
Virtual Court User Experience Survey/Observation Project
Commissioned by the CSJ, in partnership with the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, the Virtual Court User Experience Survey/Observation Project advocates for a hybrid virtual and in-person court model to influence policy changes and practice by judges and magistrates across the state. The intended outcome is for the court to agree to adopt practices that are helpful to clients in small claims matters and to change practices that harm self-represented litigants.
Through detailed reporting of evidence gathered from virtual court watch observations and interviews with self-represented litigants including methodology used, evidence obtained, and result-oriented recommendations for best practices and next steps.
Once all findings are compiled, the final report will be submitted to the Access to Justice Commission as well as the trial court.
COVID Relief Coalition – PPA Cares Act Project
In association with the COVID Relief Coalition Project in Boston, providing relief and legal assistance resources for Massachusetts small businesses and nonprofits, the CSJ has partnered with MassMutual and the Small Business Clinic to provide volunteers to help guide small businesses and nonprofits through the process to access emergency loans and other sources of relief.
A model for the ‘New Traditional University,’ Western New England University (WNE) is among just 13% of private (5,000 students or less) institutions ranked among US News and World Report ‘National Universities’ and a ‘Top 100 Engineering Program.’ Known for its supportive environment and picturesque campus in Springfield, MA, WNE enrolls 3,690 students, including 2,552 full-time undergraduate, in bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at its Colleges of Arts & Sciences, Business, Engineering, Pharmacy & Health Sciences, and School of Law. A WNE education provides career-span agility through a curriculum grounded in professional/experiential studies, enhanced by the liberal arts, and enriched by mentored research that equips graduates to adapt and succeed in the workplace of the future.