Rural Georgia's 'Legal Deserts' Are Further Stressed by Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has stretched rural legal resources even thinner because of massive unemployment, benefits issues, looming evictions, and other problems that require lawyers, said one panelist, Lauren Sudeall, director of the Georgia State University College of Law’s Center for Access to Justice.

An American Bar Association panel discussion on Tuesday addressed the persistent shortage of lawyers in rural areas, including Georgia, that leaves large swaths of the population without access to justice.  For many rural residents, she added, the main option is the Georgia Legal Services Program.

With a population of 10.6 million, Georgia has, on average, 3.1 lawyers per 1,000 residents, well below the national average of 4 lawyers per 1,000 residents, according to the new ABA report.

Researchers at GSU’s Center for Access to Justice and Georgia Tech have mapped Georgia counties by population, several attorneys, access to legal aid lawyers, poverty rate, and other demographic data. 

The legal desert problem “may not ever be solved completely, where we have a lawyer for everyone,” Sudeall acknowledged. Alternatively, she suggested providing more nonlawyer guides and online legal resources to help people navigate the legal system.

“We need to change what access to justice means, so it’s not a binary of ‘Do you have a lawyer or not?’—and instead ask ‘Who else can help?’ to make our legal system more accessible,” Sudeall said.

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