Answer: The Voluntary Defender Association was established to provide legal counsel for defendants who were unable to afford lawyers.
In the early 1900s, thousands of men and women were unable to afford lawyers, so they appeared in Philadelphia courts with no legal representation. In 1934, a group of lawyers formed the Voluntary Defender Association to provide their services pro bono.
Francis Fisher Kane, son of lawyer Robert Patterson Kane and grandson of noted jurist John Kintzing Kane, was one of the instrumental founders of the Voluntary Defender Association. Kane was admitted to the Pennsylvania Bar in 1889, and in 1903 unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Philadelphia. He was appointed the first U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and later served as the president of the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
Kane brought together several prominent local lawyers, including Curtis Bok and Thomas E. Cogan, to form the Voluntary Defender Association. Kane wanted to maintain for the defendants the same high level of service that they would have gotten from paid lawyers. On occasions where the defendants were found not guilty, the association attempted to (and was often successful at) obtaining acquittals. When defendants were found guilty, the association encouraged them to admit their guilt in order to receive lesser sentences.
The Voluntary Defender Association was funded by its lawyers, a local community chest, and private donations. In 1959, the group changed its name to the Defender Association, and the organization still exists today.
Francis Fisher Kane is featured in The Philadelphia Award 90th Anniversary Project typescript (call number AS 8 .H38 P45 2012). More publications on the Voluntary Defender Association can be found in our library.