A letter from AVLF Board Member and Chief Judge of the Fulton County Superior Court, Hon. Robert McBurney.
As a judge, my job is to give everyone a chance to be heard—and then to listen to what they say.
A problem arises in our justice system when litigants—because they are poor or scared or non-English speakers (or all of the above)—are unable to be heard because they don’t know how to express their needs, fears, or concerns in court.
AVLF amplifies the voices of these “silent” litigants, so that judges more effectively hear those who seek redress from the Court, regardless of their income, background, or familiarity with the law.
When they step in front of the judge, they want to talk about what hurt them, what scared them, and what wasn’t fair….They know they have been wronged.
Many cases that reach Superior Court are appeals from lower courts—a small claims court, a magistrate. At this stage, the facts of the case have already been decided, meaning that the nature of the Superior Court’s review is strictly legal.
That’s where self-represented litigants really struggle. When they step in front of the judge, they want to talk about what hurt them, what scared them, and what wasn’t fair. They want to go straight for the heart of the matter. They know they have been wronged.
These pro se litigants are not typically trained to navigate the law, and they may not be able to afford an attorney to assist them. Often, the facts aren’t enough. Cases can come down to paperwork and technicalities; a correct legal interpretation of these details can mean the difference between eviction and stability, between safety and the cycle of abuse.
AVLF brings attorneys to stand alongside these litigants, to help them articulate to the judicial officer, the mediator, the judge—whoever the decider is—what’s really going on in their lives, and how the law can offer them protection.
These services help make the Court a navigable institution for everyone—one that is just and equitable.
As a result of AVLF’s outreach, these communities are coming to understand that there is recourse for them in the justice system.
Beyond the letter of the law, AVLF staff and volunteers uphold the dignity of their clients. I’ve seen Safe Families Office attorneys become a sort of “human shield” around a survivor, helping their clients remain composed and focused as they face their abuser in court. They don’t have to flee the courtroom out of fear, anger, or frustration simply because their abuser is sitting nearby, trying to intimidate them.
AVLF also builds trust. Instead of always having to come to an unfamiliar place—where everyone is wearing suits and ties—and fight your way through a confusing justice system, advocacy organizations like AVLF get to know you in your neighborhood. As a result of AVLF’s outreach, these communities are coming to understand that there is recourse for them in the justice system. Their voices are being heard. In this very real sense, AVLF’s place-based work and mobile advocacy increases access to justice.
Many who come through our doors are understandably fearful of what they perceive to be “the system.” These fears aren’t unreasonable: our institutions have, at times, done a poor job of hearing from those whose voices have been hushed, if not silenced. But the Superior Court is working hard at becoming more accessible and responsive—not only by improving our systems, by having more interpreters available, and by providing self-help legal resources, but also by embracing organizations like AVLF that help amplify those voices and level the playing field.
When I was first appointed to the Superior Court of Fulton County, Standing with Our Neighbors didn’t exist (maybe it was a gleam in Marty’s eye…). Now SWON operates in eight Atlanta schools, steadily working to repair and build relationships in their communities. At the same time, the Safe Families Office has grown into an even more successful program, bringing comprehensive support to survivors of intimate partner abuse, as well as outreach and education to the community at large.
I know that all five courts in Fulton County will continue to support AVLF and its mission. This is an organization that understands that justice that isn’t accessible to everyone isn’t justice for anyone.
All rise for AVLF.
Judge Robert McBurney
Want to read other Letters From Leadership? They are an easy way to find out what drives us here at AVLF. You can find them all here.