LSC Launches Rural Justice Task Force to Address Legal Deserts and Close the Justice Gap
Director of Communications and Media Relations
WASHINGTON—LSC is launching a new task force to address critical issues with access to justice in rural communities across the country. At a virtual meeting on Wednesday, the Rural Justice Task Force convened for the first time to discuss the objectives of the initiative and identify the major problems that many low-income Americans encounter regarding legal service delivery in their communities.
“Expanding access to justice in rural areas faces many barriers— geographic and social isolation, lack of access to broadband and other technology, distinctive populations with their own cultural traditions, and in tribal areas, their own legal systems,” said LSC Board Chair John Levi. “It is also a numbers problem. There are simply not enough lawyers in rural communities.”
These regions with no or few lawyers are referred to as “legal deserts,” and they exist in almost every state. This year, the ABA reported that 52 rural counties or county equivalents in the United States have no lawyers at all, and another 182 counties have only one or two lawyers.
Although there are roughly four lawyers for every 1,000 people nationwide, that number is skewed by the high concentration of lawyers in cities. In fact, 40 percent of all counties have fewer than one lawyer per one thousand residents.
The rural lawyer population is aging, and young lawyers plagued with student loan debt are flocking to higher-paying positions offered in cities. Consequently, as these rural lawyers retire, they often find no one to take over their practices. This pattern indicates that legal deserts will continue to grow if strategic, targeted interventions are not made.
“Access to justice is not only about helping clients—when we think about access to justice, we always talk about, and are generally focused on, the client served or not served,” said Rebecca Rapp, general counsel and chief privacy officer of Ascendium and co-chair of the Rural Justice Task Force. “The justice gap has a larger pernicious effect: communities that lack attorneys can experience a justice vacuum that fundamentally changes the balance of power between people and the institutions they rely on.”
The goals of the Rural Justice Task Force include raising awareness of the civil legal needs of rural residents, profiling model programs that provide effective legal services or information to those in rural communities, recommending strategies for engaging private attorneys to provide pro bono legal assistance, and identifying opportunities for state and federal legislative assistance.
“We have a strong history of task forces helping to support the work of LSC,” said LSC President Ron Flagg. “These task forces are meant to create recommendations that will not sit on a shelf but will be used to help address the justice gap.”
The final report of findings and recommendations from the Rural Justice Task Force is slated to be published in the spring of 2023.
“By working together and keeping the image of the rural poor in our minds above all else, and working to aid them, I think we can come up with a report that has a lot of great information and great action that can truly create a difference,” said Father Pius Pietrzyk, LSC Board vice chair and co-chair of the Rural Justice Task Force.
According to LSC’s 2017 Justice Gap Report, nearly 10 million rural residents have family incomes below 125% of the federal poverty line, which is the income threshold for qualifying for legal assistance from the legal aid organizations that LSC supports. Three-quarters of rural households experienced at least one civil legal problem the year prior, including 23% that experienced six or more problems. Only 22% reached out for legal help, and 86% received no or inadequate help for their legal problems.
The task force will further LSC’s commitment to providing effective legal assistance to low-income residents of rural communities. Its 63 members are drawn from diverse communities across 29 states and professional backgrounds that serve rural communities, including legal aid and social service providers, members of the private bar, law school professors, business and community leaders, technology professionals, and members of the judiciary. They will be divided into three working groups, each with a different focus area to enable an in-depth understanding of the current challenges and possible solutions for civil legal services in rural America.
The law firm of Quarles & Brady LLP is providing pro bono project assistance, and Ascendium Education Group, Inc., a philanthropy and federal loan guarantor committed to increasing access to and success in post-secondary education and training, has underwritten the initiative.
“Rural communities have the answers,” said Rapp. “I've heard amazing tales of community organizing, creative partnerships, circuit riding to maintain a presence in far flung locations, innovative uses of technology and video conferences well before COVID, amazing initiatives to recruit, train, and support attorneys serving rural communities, and ideas for using paralegals and others to reduce the justice gap.”
“We are here to share each other’s stories and lessons from rural communities and the people who serve them, so we can learn from them and share them with others,” she continued.