Equal Justice Center Project Update from Executive Director Jessica Hilburn-Holmes, September 2020

The Philadelphia Equal Justice Center project has made substantial progress toward its goal of transforming the delivery of legal services through enhanced Collaboration, Reinvestment, Service Delivery, and Innovation. The Philadelphia Bar Foundation recently completed a comprehensive canvass to evaluate the impacts of the current global pandemic and the racial justice movement on the EJC project. In conversations with the member agencies and other stakeholders, we learned how current circumstances have affected member agencies and what challenges they are facing as a result.

The reality of this moment is that most of our member agencies cannot responsibly commit to moving into a new building at this time. This relates to both economic constraints that they are under and common uncertainty about the future of physical workspaces, particularly the safety of co-location and the size and utilization of the offices of tomorrow. The Bar Foundation, therefore, will not be moving forward with groundbreaking and construction of a new building.

Access to equal justice is a difficult, complex problem to solve. The Bar Foundation believes the 8th and Race Streets building in Chinatown was an excellent model that promised outstanding results. We greatly appreciate and value Pennrose’s steadfast support, contributions, and commitment to the project. Unfortunately, however, with the uncertainties and challenges wrought by the global pandemic, the time for this model – which emphasized physical co-location – is not now.

The vision of the EJC remains the same: equal access to justice. We will continue to foster new partnerships and alliances between nonprofit organizations, enabling them to better overcome challenges in the legal aid sector and to respond to the emergent needs in communities at a moment when protecting housing, healthcare, education, civil rights, and democracy is arguably more urgent than ever before. Through collective investment in technologies and systems, we will be able to increase capacity for the delivery of services. We will make it easier for Philadelphians to get the legal help they deserve.

Currently, our focus for the EJC is on three priorities, which emerged from our recent discussions:

  • Conducting a needs assessment and feasibility study on existing and new technology so that we can better understand how agencies can: effectively share information about legal aid access and resources; increase the delivery of civil legal aid services; and enhance collaboration among legal aid agencies, their community partners, other potential partnerships (e.g., libraries), and the courts.
  • Exploring the development and deployment of community legal navigators to identify emergent community needs and refer individuals to available legal aid and social service resources.
  • Piloting a Legal Incubator project that will train and employ new Philadelphia lawyers (with an emphasis on recruiting diverse lawyers, and those who have lived experience and language skills) to provide low-cost legal services to minority-owned, micro-businesses in Philadelphia.

And, we will together challenge unfair norms and work to reform the civil legal system to overcome systemic racism. Legal aid agencies, who were overworked and overwhelmed before the pandemic, now face a surge in need for their services and a decrease in funding. This year has strengthened our resolve. A workable, affordable Equal Justice Center serving our community is possible, and the Foundation remains committed to its realization.


Jessica R. Hilburn-Holmes

P.S. If you have specific questions at this time about the Equal Justice Center project and our Capital Campaign, please email me at [email protected]