Friday, January 14, 2011

The sad truth: Legal aid for rural Californians is often not an option

Where do you turn when you are elderly and disabled, living in a remote area of Humboldt or Imperial County, and in need of legal aid? Tragically for many, the answer is simple. No where.

For many low-income or impoverished Californians, legal aid is no more than a hopeful mirage. Statewide legal aid offices provide invaluable civil legal assistance without charge. But those living in rural and remote areas are often unable to access this assistance.

Over five million Californians live in rural areas, one-third of which are eligible for legal assistance. While rural Californians face the same issues confronted by their urban counterparts, including domestic violence, problems with housing issues, and lack of access to education, their their need for aid is often more desperate. Rural Californians live with a higher percentage of substandard housing, higher unemployment, lower pay, lower average educational levels, and less access to health care than do urban Californians. Each year, approximately 36 percent of these rural poor require free legal services to maintain their housing, income and safety. Legal services, however, are extremely sparse in rural areas, moreso than in urban areas. Currently, these services cannot provide even a minimum level of assistance to two-thirds of those in need.

Urban communities like San Francisco play a significant role in achieving statewide parity, between urban and rural communities, in legal services. The California Commission on Access to Justice has recently released a report – “Improving Civil Justice in Rural California” – detailing their recommendations for achieving this goal. One crucial task, according to the Report, is to increase funding for all legal aid providers through additional fundraising efforts. In addition, the Report suggests that private Bay Area attorneys should consider fulfilling their pro bono requirements by serving more remote areas of the state, where the need is high. Further, the Report recommends local legal and community groups should create partnerships with rural groups to jointly work toward a solution. Lastly, the Report advises our leaders in government need to initiate an open dialogue about how we can help less populated areas of the state.

Access to justice through the legal system is one of the most important rights to citizens in our country. The need for legal aid is especially critical in rural areas, where so many are left without recourse. As Dee Davis, president of The Center for Rural Strategies, has pointed out, “Rural America lags behind the rest of the nation in nearly every measure of success” – and it’s about time that something is done to make access to legal aid a reality for rural Americans.


RH said...

There is a really popular article in the New York Times right now called "Is Law School a Losing Game"

The article is pretty long but on page 6 it brings up the point that there is a huge oversupply of lawyers who might otherwise might be able to do things like legal aid in rural communities, but most of the statistics say that the average law grad needs to earn about 65,000 a year in order to handle their student debt load. In this political environment, it might be pretty tough to get government to allocate more money towards legal aid- but maybe a more expansive loan-repayment forgiveness plan for lawyers doing legal aid in rural areas would be more politically palatable?

lauren said...

Thank you for this post. I think the Report's suggestion that Bay Area firms fulfill their pro bono requirements in rural communities, especially give the proximity to such areas and the large number of firms in San Francisco and Oakland.