Access to Justice in Rural Areas

Providing legal aid to low-income people in rural areas can be particularly challenging because of distance, lack of access to transportation, and lack of awareness of the kinds of services and help that legal aid can provide. Similar challenges make it difficult for private attorneys to volunteer to take cases.

The projects below highlight how LSC-funded legal aid organizations have tried to tackle the issues of providing legal help to clients in rural areas.

Skype Clinic for Rural Service Delivery

Utah Legal Services used Skype in 2013 to establish clinics in order to help attorneys meet regularly with clients who resided in distant areas of the state. Clinics were held at community locations such as shelters and public libraries, which were equipped with the technology necessary to facilitate these meetings.

Before the clinics scheduled hours, staff at the clinic location would send the necessary documents to the coordinating Utah Legal Services attorney via fax. During the scheduled clinic times, staff attorneys connected to the remote location via Skype. Any documents that a client wanted an attorney to review could be sent via fax during the clinic.

Skype clinics allowed attorneys to meet with clients on an as-needed basis. The technology eliminated the need to travel to distant areas, and attorneys could continue working in their offices until a client was available.

Food Stamp Outreach Project

In 2004, Lone Star Legal Aid developed the Food Stamp Outreach Project. Funded in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the project sought to increase participation in the food stamp program by:

  • Educating potential consumers about the benefits and availability of the program
  • Providing individual eligibility screening
  • Assisting with applications for those who chose to apply for food stamps

Lone Star Legal Aid formed a bilingual outreach team to conduct community events throughout the service area. The community events included an education session, written materials, and a question-and-answer period. Attendees could also receive on-site individual counseling, food stamp eligibility screening, and help with completing a food stamp application. A member of Lone Star Legal Aid's staff submitted the applications to the local food stamp offices and monitored each case to confirm receipt of benefits.

The team was staffed with four paralegals and a managing attorney. Each team member had education materials and a portable workstation that included a laptop, scanner, and printer. Two workstations had projectors.

Rural Subsidized Housing Initiative

In developing the Rural Subsidized Housing Initiative in 2003, Indiana Legal Services identified a number of critical housing needs:

  • Preventing the termination of subsidized housing benefits
  • Improving the quality and habitability of housing
  • Providing opportunities for home ownership for low-income clients

The Housing Initiative offered a range of services to support housing needs:

  • Legal education classes to the public
  • Collaboration with public housing authorities to draft policies
  • Transactional assistance to housing councils seeking tax-exempt status
  • Direct representation on behalf of tenants to address specific legal problems such as eviction or termination of benefits

The project operated out of the Bloomington office and was staffed by an Equal Justice Works fellow.

Regional Self-Help Center

The Superior Court of California, located in Butte County, collaborated with Glenn and Tehama counties to launch a regional self-help center model to provide legal information and court documents to self-represented litigants in all three counties.

Regular office hours enabled staff to serve walk-in residents in addition to offering workshops on popular legal topics. Butte, Glenn, and Tehama County offices coordinated workshops four days a week, so residents in all three locations had the opportunity to interactively participate. The workshops, broadcast using videoconferencing equipment, were recorded for future viewing. Videoconferencing also assisted residents with limited English proficiency and helped staff in remote locations meet.

The Superior Court of California funded the pilot project to assess how counties that could not afford to pay the salary of an attorney could pool resources with neighboring counties and utilize technology to offer high-quality legal help to self-represented litigants.

Minnesota Family Farm Law Project

Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services partnered with Farmers Legal Action Group, Mid-Minnesota Legal Assistance, and Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota to implement the Minnesota Family Farm Law Project in 2003. The project provided legal services to low-income farmers who were faced with the prospect of losing their homestead.

Staff provided representation, consultation, and negotiation services to clients during mediation. Staff also ensured that a farm could continue to operate by preventing the repossession of farm machinery, livestock, crops, and real estate. Legal assistance and community services ensured that financially distressed farmers received fair treatment from private lenders, federal farm credit agencies, and other organizations.

To be eligible for help, applicants had to earn less than $25,000 a year with a debt to asset ratio that exceeded 50 percent.

The project, funded entirely through state allocations, operated in concert with state and local bar associations and relied heavily on volunteer attorneys and bar associations located in rural areas. The project used reduced-fee contracts with private attorneys and required that clients pay a small portion of the fees. A little more than 30 law firms participated in the project.

Judges Best Practices CLE & Pro Bono Program

The Rural Law Center of New York created the Judges' Best Practices continuing legal education (CLE) and pro bono program in 2003 to deliver continuing legal education programs to attorneys working in rural areas while simultaneously improving private attorney involvement.

Since satisfying mandatory CLE requirements can be logistically difficult for attorneys in rural areas, the Rural Law Center traveled to rural counties throughout the state to deliver CLE presentations in partnership with the local judiciary, local bar associations, and regional legal aid organizations. Local judges designed and taught the CLE curriculum.

Instead of paying registration fees for the CLE sessions, each participating attorney agreed to accept one pro bono case in the next year. Pro bono cases were assigned through the pro bono coordinator at the local legal aid organization or bar association.

The Rural Law Center hosted CLE programs in 26 of New York's 44 counties. By working with local bar associations, the Rural Law Center found facilities for the training and publicized the event through mailings and newsletters.