Friday, September 9, 2011

The Justice Bus

On warm summer days and frigid winter mornings alike, law students step out of cars into what some would call "the middle of nowhere" of California. These students spend one or two days providing necessary legal services to low-income rural Californians with the help of local legal aid attorneys. Through these students' work, many rural individuals find solutions to their legal problems. These students are able to provide these services because of the Justice Bus.

The Justice Bus, a program facilitated by One Justice, creates opportunities for law students and summer associates at large law firms to provide legal services in rural California by coordinating legal clinics on weekends. The Justice Bus program organizes every aspect of the legal clinics, from publicity to coordinating with legal aid organizations. Ironically, typically no bus is involved, but rather the program coordinates carpools to save on costs.

According to the California Commission on Access to Justice and its report "Improving Civil Justice in Rural California," many low-income rural Californians do not receive the legal services they need. Approximately 1.6 million Californians who live in rural areas qualify for legal aid and at least one-third of those who qualify need legal services each year. Limited funding combined with the need to cover large geographic areas restricts the ability of legal aid attorneys to travel to and consult with rural residents. In addition, many rural areas have few or no attorneys who can provide pro bono work. Rural communities need new solutions to address the problem of access to legal assistance.

The Justice Bus may be one such solution, and it allows all law students, from first years to third years, to have practical legal experience. Students conduct intake, draft legal documents, and provide self-help education. Also, as importantly, the Justice Bus exposes law students to the struggles of low-income people in rural communities, including their problems with accessing legal services. Hopefully, some students who participate in this program will consider practicing in a rural community in the future or at least will participate in pro bono activities in rural communities.

The Justice Bus gives legal aid organizations with whom it partners the opportunity to serve more clients. The executive director of the Watsonville Law Center, Dori Rose Inda said that help from the Justice Bus law students enabled her organization to assist three times as many people as normal. The Justice Bus is making a difference for the clients of many legal aid organizations.

The question, though, is whether the Justice Bus really is making a difference in rural communities. On more than one occasion, the Justice Bus has visited communities that are questionably rural. Recently, the Justice Bus took a group of Skadden summer associates to San Mateo to provide legal services. San Mateo has a population of over 91,000 people. By many standards such a population, especially in a county with almost 800,000 people, is not rural. However, the Justice Bus in its publicity about the clinic referred to San Mateo as rural. Maybe the Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County was in particular need and the Justice Bus stepped in to help. While that might be the case, it seems to detract from the initial purpose of the Justice Bus: to serve rural communities.

Maybe one solution to the problem would be to have the Justice Bus partner with rural attorneys who are interested in pro bono work as opposed to only legal aid organizations. This option may not have been successful in the past and may be why the Justice Bus drifted towards partnering only with legal aid organizations. If it partnered with local rural attorneys or small law firms, though, the Justice Bus would have more options for where it could go because legal aid in rural areas is limited. For example, instead of going to Redding to work with Legal Services of Northern California, as students from McGeorge did last March, maybe the Justice Bus could stop in Red Bluff first or take a right and drive into the wilderness to Quincy.

This is not to say the Justice Bus does not visit any rural areas. In 2010, Stanford Law School students assisted low-income seniors in Mariposa County, a county of less than 19,000 people. The town they visited, Mariposa, has a population of around 2,000. By most any definition, this would fall into the rural category. More trips to areas like Mariposa County are necessary to serve the California rural communities that are in greatest need.

While this program is helpful to the areas it targets, its scope of service is limited. The Justice Bus will visit a limited number of rural locations if it operates only on weekends, coordinates solely with legal aid organizations, and gets distracted from from serving rural communities. Maybe if the program expands it will have greater influence and will connect with more local attorneys in rural areas. For now, it is doing what it can, but the legal community must find more solutions to address the overwhelming need for legal services in rural California.


hgill said...

Perhaps San Mateo isn't rural by definition of strictly numbers. It could be rural in other ways- as discussed in our class. These could be cultural factors, such as what the citizens consider themselves as. Looking at the city's 2010 comprehensive annual financial report, the top employers in the city are government entities, as we would normally find in a rural setting. However, Macy's also makes the list, so it would be interesting to know what criteria the Justice Bus uses to define rural.

Courtney Taylor said...

Considering the program targets low-income and rural populations, I was very surprised to see San Mateo as rural, especially given its large population in a very large county and the fact that poverty levels there are 50% lower than the national average. I was relieved, however, to read the Justice Bus visited a place like Mariposa. A good friend of mine grew up there and I can confirm it's very rural.

I understand that it might be difficult to travel to rural areas of California when volunteers have only two days for the trip. It does seem, however, the extra travel time would be worth it if more people "hopped on the bus." More volunteers would mean that a greater number of people are receiving services in a shorter period of time, making up for the extra time spent traveling.

JWHS said...

The only way I see something like this actually making an impact is in consistency.

Its pretty hard to just show up in an area and say, "hey,need to file a lawsuit?" and expect a real impact/response. People in these areas might not even know if they have a claim or not. And if the justice bus drops by unexpectedly (or with even short notice), how is it fair to expect a would-be plaintiff to have all of his information ready for this two-day lawyer?

Without consistency, programs like these look like tax write-offs to me. Maybe ABA pro-bono hours.

hgill said...

JWHS you make a very valid point. It would be difficult then for San Francisco lawyers to continually go to areas a couple hours away from them. At our law school we have the Civil Rights Outreach Project. Each law school has one in Northern California, and our target area is an hour radius around our law school. Perhaps the justice bus program could be mirrored like this.