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Home / Local / UPDATED: St. Louis County family court shuns Wash U. legal clinic students

UPDATED: St. Louis County family court shuns Wash U. legal clinic students

Decision follows DOJ’s launch of investigation

A Washington University children’s advocacy legal clinic is scrambling for an alternative because a Family Court of St. Louis County judge said the clinic’s law students can’t represent clients there this semester.

The decision to break a four-year tradition followed a U.S. Department of Justice announcement late last year of an investigation into how the court handles juvenile delinquency matters — and a listserv-posted email praising another of the university’s legal clinics for challenging the court’s handling of the matters.

Wash U legal clinic email

The prohibition doesn’t affect students at legal clinics from the other law school in the St. Louis area, Saint Louis University.

Washington University’s Children and Family Advocacy clinic, led by Professor Annette Appell, has worked in the court on issues including guardianship, neglect and custody for four-and-a-half years.

The court, facing the investigation and the launch of e-filing, “felt that it was a little bit too busy to have our students there,” Appell said in a phone interview Thursday.

Appell learned her students wouldn’t be able to represent clients in the court when she called Family Court Administrative Judge Ellen Levy Siwak to arrange an orientation meeting for the clinic’s six students for the beginning of the semester. The program started each semester with the meeting, a tour of the court and observation of court proceedings, Appell said.

“That’s when I learned they had too much on their plates to accommodate our students and we had to change our practices,” Appell said. “We’re scampering trying to do our clinic.”

Students supervised by licensed attorneys can perform legal work with a Missouri Supreme Court authorization, Appell said. Appell later spoke with Siwak, a Washington University School of Law alumna, about students observing cases where they’ve represented a client in work outside the court. Siwak said they can attend the hearings, but Appell has to do the representation, Appell said.

Aubrey Edwards-Luce, a student in the Children & Family Advocacy Clinic who participated in the university’s Civil Justice Clinic last year, said the timing was “extremely coincidental.”

“From what I know, we don’t take any more time as students versus having others, post-bar attorneys,” representing clients in the court, Edwards-Luce said Friday.

Clients whose cases she has spent a lot of time on don’t get the benefit of their full-lawyer teams representing them in court, Edwards-Luce said, and she hasn’t been able to get experience of arguing in front of the court.

An assistant to Siwak referred a reporter to the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, as did Judge Michael Burton, who was the court’s administrative judge last year but now is not serving in the family court, according to the St. Louis County website. The office represents the interests of the state and its agencies. Nanci Gonder, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, responded to a phone message with an email saying the office declined to comment.

The same judges handle family issues, such as those students in Appell’s clinic work on, and juvenile matters, addressed by the Juvenile Law and Justice Clinic headed by Professor Mae Quinn.

In a November email, Quinn said the investigation announcement followed “four and a half years of our Civil Justice Clinic working hard to address what we see as extreme injustices in our juvenile court system.” The Justice Department is concerned about “whether the court’s administration of justice provides equal treatment for youth regardless of race,” she said in the email, which was posted to a law clinic listserv by Benjamin Barton, a University of Tennessee law professor who wrote that he’d asked Quinn’s permission to share it.

Quinn didn’t return a phone call and an email seeking comment by press time. A description of the Juvenile Law and Justice Clinic on Washington University’s website said student attorneys would focus on St. Louis City juvenile cases and does not mention county cases.

Barton said the prohibition on students from the children’s advocacy law clinic representing clients in the court was a “disappointing reaction” to the investigation.

“That strikes me as a clear reprisal,” said Barton, who led the University of Tennessee College of Law legal clinic programs for four years.

Barton taught with Quinn at the University of Tennessee before she joined Washington University, he said Thursday.

Students from Saint Louis University’s legal clinics occasionally represent clients in St. Louis County Family Court, said Barbara Gilchrist, interim director of SLU’s clinics.

“Whatever this prohibition is, however far it attaches, it doesn’t affect our lawyers’ and students’ abilities to go into St. Louis County, whether family court or juvenile,” Gilchrist said.

The Washington University Children and Family Advocacy Clinic has two cases left pending in the county family court and is working with St. Louis Circuit Judge David C. Mason on taking on some cases in St. Louis Circuit Court, Appell said.

“We had, and still have, I believe, a good relationship with the [St. Louis County] court and its personnel, including judges, juvenile officers, court attorneys, clerks, and private attorneys,” Appell said in an email follow-up to the phone interview.

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