Wednesday, May 23, 2012

UC Davis School of Law's first Justice Bus® trip

Early Friday morning, March 30, 2012, seven UC Davis law students and I jumped into two cars and headed to Calistoga, California. Calistoga is a town of approximately 5,000 people located at the far north end of the Napa Valley. But this was not going to be a typical outing to Napa Valley with wine tasting, delicate food, and bicycle rides through the vineyards. Instead, we traveled to Calistoga to provide legal assistance to some of California's most vulnerable residents- rural, low-income seniors.

It can be difficult to believe there are low-income populations in locations as luxurious as the Napa Valley. Yet, removed from the touristy vineyards and spas in Calistoga were two mobile home parks where seniors often fall victim to profit-hungry landlords. These mobile home parks are tucked away from the public's view, so as not to undermine Napa Valley's posh and idyllic image. We eight UC Davis law students split our day between these two mobile home parks and assisted seniors with their estate planning needs.

Our trip was made possible by OneJustice, a legal services nonprofit committed to ensuring California's low-income populations receive access to legal services. OneJustice organizes the Justice Bus Project, a program that seeks to connect law students with rural communities in need. In conjunction with Legal Aid of Napa Valley, OneJustice organized free estate planning clinics for seniors at the mobile home parks in Calistoga. In addition, the Humanitarian Aid Legal Organization (HALO) at UC Davis School of Law helped to recruit law student volunteers for the trip.

We started the day with a substantive training on the documents we were going to be working with: advanced health care directives and powers of attorney. These documents give someone (usually a family member) the power to make health care and financial decisions on behalf of another person who due to illness or injury becomes incapable of making those decisions. The documents clarify the person's health care and financial wishes before he or she can no longer express them. Family members save time and emotional upset when they know the wishes of their loved ones. After the substantive training, we had interviewing skills training. Then we split off in pairs and began to assist seniors with their estate plans.

Any time we encountered a question or needed to give a client legal advice, we first discussed the issue with the supervising attorney from Legal Aid of Napa Valley, Kristi Lesnewich. Then we returned to the client and gave him or her the legal advice Kristi had directed us to give. Through our consultations we learned a great deal about the lives of our clients and shared laughs and smiles throughout the process. Our clients were very kind and appreciative of our service. They were also surprised that we had driven an hour and a half in the rain to assist them.

Some of the clients brought their wills for us to review. While many of the seniors we met had little in terms of possessions, they still wanted to make sure whatever was left was disposed according to their wishes. It was empowering to be able to help numerous seniors with their wills and you could see the relief on their faces when they learned that their current will was fine or that a legal aid attorney would edit it at no charge.

We assisted about 20 low-income seniors on that day in Calistoga. Because it is a small city, Calistoga has no legal aid office. A legal aid attorney from Legal Aid of Napa Valley travels to Calistoga once a month to help low-income seniors, but beyond that little is otherwise available in terms of legal services for low-income individuals. Some of the people we met were no longer able to drive or otherwise travel to the City of Napa for legal services. What we saw and learned on our day in Calistoga made it clear  that we were filling a gap in legal services.

Overall, our group had a wonderful Justice Bus experience. Candace, the Justice Bus coordinator with OneJustice, did a great job organizing the trip. The clinic was well-run, efficient, and effective. As law students we were given support by very competent and easy-to-approach attorneys. Most importantly, we felt as though we had really made a difference in the lives of many low-income seniors who otherwise may not have had proper documents in place when difficult decisions needed to be made or when they passed on.

The hectic life of a law student filled with classes, job-hunting, and extracurricular activities can make it easy to forget why we came to law school. The Justice Bus trip gave us a reminder we all needed:   Many of us came to law school to help those in need. We don't have to wait until we pass the bar to lend a helping hand. Through the Justice Bus and similar programs we can provide necessary legal services while in law school. The Justice Bus also made us more aware of the justice gap between rural and urban communities. Providing legal services in a rural community, where the need is great, was educational and inspirational. I hope UC Davis students will again have the opportunity to serve rural communities through the Justice Bus program.

An earlier post about the Justice Bus is here.

1 comment:

Carl Eric Leivo, Ph.D. said...

Your partnership deserves much credit and appreciation for the great and badly needed services you provided.

Manufactured home community residents are treated as second class citizens under the law as I highlight in my blog, No entity enforces the CA. Mobilehome Residency Law and other laws that govern the unique relationships between residents and park owners. The only way to enforce manufactured home owner's rights is usually through the courts. Residents lack the resources. There exists a urgent need for legal assistance in these specialized areas.