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Jacksonville Bar Association Executive Director Susan Sowards, left; Kathy Para, chair of the JBA Pro Bono Committee; and association President Geddes Anderson were making room in the display cabinet Friday for the association's third Chief Justice's ...
Jax Daily Record Monday, Jan. 16, 201712:00 PM EST

Jacksonville Bar Association receiving pro bono award from The Florida Bar

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by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

The best among more than 250.

That’s the story behind The Jacksonville Bar Association’s selection to receive the 2017 Chief Justice’s Voluntary Bar Association Pro Bono Award from The Florida Bar.

The JBA was selected from among the more than 250 voluntary Bar associations in the state in recognition of the association’s enduring commitment to pro bono service. It also received the award in 1997 and 2002.

President Geddes Anderson said the commitment of local attorneys to help people in the community who could not afford to pay for representation in a dispute or in the courtroom began in 1897 as soon as the JBA was founded.

“That’s where the real commitment to access to justice lies — in the staying power over time,” he said.

Beginning in 1937, the association’s members provided pro bono service under the banner of the Legal Aid Society of Duval County, but by the mid-1960s, American society was changing rapidly.

More people needed legal services than ever before and many could not afford an attorney.

In November 1964, the JBA established a full-time paid staff operation, which eventually became Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.

The nonprofit law firm has grown over the years. In addition to the headquarters Downtown, JALA has offices in Clay and St. Johns counties and serves low-income clients in 17 counties in North Florida.

Attorney Kathy Para, director of pro bono at JALA and chair of the JBA Pro Bono Committee, nominated the association for the award.

She said in addition to the hundreds of cases assigned to JALA staff attorneys, about 500 more clients are being helped by volunteer attorneys.

“We have very strong participation in pro bono,” said Para.

The JBA expanded its pro bono commitment in 2009 when it began conducting Ask-A-Lawyer events four times a year.

People who live in low-income neighborhoods are invited to bring their legal questions to the events, where they can speak one-on-one with a volunteer attorney who often can give them advice on how to proceed on their own or where to obtain representation at no cost.

Each event represents at least 250 hours of volunteer legal service, Para said.

Another program, Advance Directives for Seniors, sends volunteer attorneys to subsidized senior residences where the lawyers help residents prepare and execute living wills and other documents.

In 2012, The Florida Bar’s Legal Needs of Children Committee established the Pro Bono Attorney Ad Litem Program. The JBA has recruited and trained many of its members and placed children with attorneys who would represent them in court, resulting in hundreds of hours of volunteered legal services and advocacy.

The JBA’s Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee in 2013 established the Pro Bono Mediation Project, which helped low-income clients settle matters before having to go to court.

In 2012, the JBA won the Robert J. Beckham Equal Justice Award from JALA.

Last year, the association’s Pro Bono Committee worked with the 4th circuit Pro Bono Committee to hoist the first circuitwide recognition of attorneys who volunteer at least 20 hours of their legal services in a year.

The Law Week Committee, in conjunction with Florida Coastal School of Law, coordinates the annual Citizenship Day celebration.

Candidates fill out applications for U.S. citizenship, which are reviewed by volunteer attorneys before they are submitted to the federal government.

Anderson will accept the award, on behalf of the association’s board of governors and its members who volunteer their services, from Chief Justice Jorge Labarga Thursday at the state Supreme Court in Tallahassee.

“It’s a privilege to be part of the legacy,” he said.

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