Talk Justice, Episode 6: Challenges to Delivering Legal Services to Rural and Tribal Areas

November 5, 2020

The daunting challenges to delivering civil legal services in rural and tribal communities is explored on the latest episode of “Talk Justice,” a podcast produced by Legal Services Corporation (LSC). Nikole Nelson, Executive Director, Alaska Legal Services Corporation; Rebecca Rapp, General Counsel and Chief Privacy Officer, Ascendium Education Group, Inc; and Rudy Sanchez, Executive Director, DNA –People’s Legal Services joined LSC’s Emerging Leaders Council member Jason Tashea hosts the discussion.

Attorneys and legal resources are concentrated in cities, leaving significant swaths of rural communities as "legal deserts." Nearly 20% of individuals in this country live in rural areas, but only 2% of attorneys nationwide practice in rural areas or small towns, according to a 2014 study published in the South Dakota Law Review.

LSC’s 2017 Justice Gap Report estimated that 75% of low-income rural households experienced a civil legal problem, including 23% that experienced six or more problems. Yet in the year studied, these rural residents received inadequate or no professional legal help for 86% of their civil legal problems. Other challenges to rural communities include geographic and social isolation and the frequent lack of Internet service or technology. The pandemic has only intensified the problem, increasing the number of legal problems that people are experiencing while stretching legal resources even thinner.

In the podcast, Nelson and Sanchez describe in detail the unique challenges low-income individuals living in remote areas face when they encounter legal problems. They note that it’s not only the lack of legal infrastructure that causes their clients issues. “The legal problems become amplified by a lack of access to additional services within the community,” explains Nelson. “In Anchorage, if somebody is experiencing domestic violence, I can send them to a shelter here. I can tell them to get a protective order from the local court and I can tell them that they can call the local police to enforce it. In many of Alaska’s most remote villages, there is a not a court there, there is not a domestic violence shelter, there are no police in many of our villages.”

Rapp, who is helping form LSC’s upcoming Rural Task Force, explains the group’s goals. These include fostering ideas on how to recruit and retain attorneys in rural areas, reach people with limited or no Internet or cell-phone service and cultivate effective community partnerships and pro bono initiatives.

Talk Justice episodes are available on LSC's website and on Spotify, Stitcher, Apple and other popular podcast apps. The podcast is sponsored by LSC’s Leaders Council.

Future episodes of Talk Justice will explore the important role libraries and law libraries play in expanding access to justice to low-income Americansand legal aid’s importance to American business.