Harvard Voluntary Defenders, founded by HLS students, provides legal assistance to low-income defendants

  • Voluntary Defenders Membership Application, 1969-1970, page 1

    Voluntary Defenders Membership Application, 1969-1970, page 1

    Founded in 1949, the Harvard Voluntary Defenders grew to about 80 members by 1973. In 1973-74 they represented 190 clients.

  • Photograph of the Harvard Voluntary Defenders, 1972-1973

    Harvard Voluntary Defenders, 1972-1973

    This photograph of the Harvard Voluntary Defenders on the steps of Langdell Hall appeared in the 1973 HLS yearbook.

  • Excerpt of “Equal Justice Under The Law” By Herman LaRue Brown?, 1962

    “Equal Justice Under The Law” By Herman LaRue Brown?, 1962

    Thanks to the pro-bono work of HLS students, the Boston Voluntary Defenders Committee was able to run on a shoestring budget.

Voluntary Defenders Membership Application, 1969-1970

Red Set Small Manuscript, Box 10, Folder 3
HOLLIS 8536257

Prior to a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision in 1963, courts in Massachusetts did not appoint lawyers to represent “indigent” (poor or low-income) defendants except in cases of first-degree murder. As a result, thousands of adults and juveniles each year served unnecessary jail time for misdemeanors and minor felonies. The Boston Voluntary Defenders Committee was founded as a private charity in 1935 to provide counsel to indigents in criminal cases. In 1949, Harvard Law School (HLS) students founded the Harvard Voluntary Defenders to provide legal assistance to low-income defendants in liaison with Boston Legal Aid.

In its early years, the Harvard Voluntary Defenders conducted pre-trial interviews of Boston-area defendants and witnesses, wrote memoranda on issues that appeared frequently in district courts, conducted research for low-income prisoners seeking assistance from all over the country, and assisted in post-conviction research and the filing of post-trial motions.

Originally occupying space on a single bulletin board, by 1973 the Harvard Voluntary Defenders had grown to approximately 80 members and had an office in Austin Hall. Today, the Harvard Defenders, as they are now known, is one of the oldest and largest student-practice organizations at HLS, and the only organization in the state that provides pro-bono representation for low-income people in criminal show-cause hearings; that is, a district court hearing that determines if there is probable cause to believe someone committed a crime.