Saturday, March 4, 2017

Mobile courts: a solution to the "access to justice" problem in rurality?

Last December, Simon Romero of the New York Times explored a unique attempt at a rural-access to justice project in Brazil in his article "A Floating Courthouse Takes the Rule of Law to Brazil's Frontier." The article describes a three-story ferryboat that travels on the Amazon river to remote parts of Brazil's jungles carrying a judge, two bailiffs, a court clerk, and a handful of other folks prepared to offer recourse in a court of law to rural people.

I was reminded of this article when Assemblyman Brian Dahle of California's First Assembly District came to speak to our class and, in answer to a question about access to justice, mentioned that California has a bus for that. He mentioned it cursorily, and I suspect that is how most rural people think of "mobile courts": with a shrug. Back in Brazil, the "floating court" has a docket in each location, and the project seems to have a clear-eyed, benevolent methodology. However, one comment from a Brazilian citizen caught my eye, and this echoed what I imagine we'd hear from Assemblyman Dahle's constituents: “My taxes pay for justice, but I feel the [mobile court] approach is superficial. . .” This Brazilian man goes on to explain how he wishes the court could do more.

This isn't to say that mobile court projects aren't gaining traction. In Timor Leste, the government began a project of mobile courts years ago. It seeks not only to bring justice, but to build confidence in the young country's justice system itself. In Pakistan, a big green bus brings efficiency and the rule of law to "the most remote and conflict-affected areas." However, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, mobile courts that bring three "judiciaries" (judges) and several other court staff to rural areas to hear sexual assault cases have had less success. This may be due to the fact that these mobile courts have less organization and less buy-in from local people.

After considering these inchoate mobile court projects as they play out on the world stage, I wonder, can mobile courts ever be successful in bringing justice to constituents like Assemblyman Dahle's? Access to justice in rural locations is a tremendous problem in the US, where, as of 2014, only about 2% of attorneys worked in rural areas. This is a troubling statistic, as rural areas are inhabited by about 20% our nation's citizens. Ethan Bronner, Roy Ginsburg, Danielle Paquette, and Lisa Pruitt have written on the extreme deficiency of legal professionals in rurality. As recently as a few months ago, thirty counties in Nebraska were revealed to have three or fewer attorneys, and ten had no attorneys at all, for example.

Several states are developing innovative solutions to this rural lawyer shortage, including South Dakota's Rural Attorney Recruitment Program that provides incentives for five continuous years of practice in a rural county, or Nebraska's Rural Practice Loan Repayment Assistance Program, a state law whose goal it to "enable public legal service entities and rural communities to attract and retain qualified attorneys." In addition, Skype has afforded some attorneys in Utah and Texas the opportunity to offer legal services to remote locations. However, what if you live in one of many rural locations with little-to-no broadband access? The answer is, Skype would not be an option for your legal services. (This map of California's broadband access -or utter lack thereof- may surprise you, although apparently the FCC does plan to expand service, as a fellow blogger has noted.)

This brings us back to the idea of mobile courts. Short of lawyers hanging shingles all over rurality, which would be ideal, the mobile court concept might be the very best solution. The bus Assemblyman Dahle referenced as coming into his county to offer legal services to local residents might be one of two busses. One is the One Justice "Justice Bus" which has been discussed by a fellow blogger.

The Justice Bus brings volunteer lawyers and law students to people in remote areas and sets up day-long legal clinics to help rural people with a variety of legal needs. The Justice Bus provides support in areas from bankruptcy to expungement to immigration.

The other bus that Dahle may (more likely) have been thinking of is the Lassen Superior Court's Mobile Access Center (MAC). This is a mobile Superior Court filled with clerks and legal service providers which helps residents with most filing issues that don't involve a court appearance. The Mobile Access Center was one of the first of its kind, and began offering services in rural northern California nearly a decade ago.

In South Dakota, a mobile Tribal Court brings the law to Cheyenne River Sioux who live in rurality on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. This mobile court supports 2.8 million people who would need to make more than a 150-mile round trip to get to the Tribal Court in Eagle Butte, helping them avoid the court fees and issues that arise when they fail to show up for court due to poverty and lack of transportation.

Similar to the three above mobile legal clinics/courts, but differing in the geographic focus, the New York Legal Assistance Group has a "Mobile Legal Help Center" that helps citizens in Harlem and elsewhere with issues such as housing, immigration, benefits, and more. People in impoverished urban neighborhoods can be just as isolated in some ways as those in rurality. This is a topic for a totally different blog post.

For rural isolated people, however, a bussed-in court-system or legal clinic that infrequently stops on Main Street may not be enough to help them feel that their legal needs have been met. Rurality represents 76% of California's land area, and despite a Herculean effort, one or two court or clinic buses can't provide legal assistance to every far-flung Californian. It makes sense that the deficiency in legal services remains daunting to people living in rurality. While the mobile court concept is helpful, it would need to be replicated considerably to make genuine headway in the rural-access-to-justice fight.

All of the above solutions to the devastating problem of rural access to justice may have an underlying positive impact, despite not being fully sufficient to meet the legal needs of rural folks. As Lisa Pruitt notes, bridging the rural justice gap has the effect of "helping particularly those who do not seek legal services either because they do not know the law could help them or because they do not have an existing relationship with an attorney."

As Noura Hamladji of the UN Development Programme in Timor-Leste notes, “Mobile courts offer a touch and feel experience with justice, and with government, so the implications to educate the public and inspire confidence are enormous.” Kimberly Traversie of the Cheyenne River Sioux takes a less philosophical approach: “[b]ecause they don’t have the financial resources to make it to their court date, we did this instead, to lessen their economic and financial burden. To make life livable.”

Whether or not you ascribe to the more high-minded or the more practical view of mobile courts, the fact is, they have great potential. Maybe they just need a bit more support, a bit more funding, and a bit more buy-in from governments in urban places where courts are more easily accessible. Perhaps what mobile courts need is essentially a bit more legal-horsepower to make it all the way out to the holler.


Anne Badasci said...

What a fascinating exploration of the mobile justice phenomenon! When Assemblyman Dahle was discussing this last week, I definitely found myself curious about it and wanting to know more, so thanks for this article! I think you hit one of the main nails on the head with the statistics about how few attorneys work in these rural areas, despite how many people live there. Barring some massive migration of attorneys to those regions, it's difficult to imagine a real solution that isn't just a stopgap, and I give kudos to whoever thought of these "mobile justice centers" for at least attempting to be innovative in solving those issues. I do think there are several identifiable shortcomings with these types of ventures, but I also tend to think they are better than nothing. This was a well-thought-out and in-depth exploration of the concept, and I will definitely be keeping up with news that comes out on this topic in the future!

Mollie M said...

This 'Justice Bus' idea is so interesting! I am assuming that this is mostly for civil legal problems? I wonder what happens when the bus leaves? I agree- lots of potential here, but possibly for very specific needs. A lot of legal issues require at least two or three follow-ups, and I wonder how that plays out after the bus leaves.

Similarly, for issues like Domestic Violence or Restraining orders - or even judgments against a party - how well will they be enforced by the police department or local authorities (if there are any)? I think this is a great idea, but I also want another solution for certain legal issues that carry safety issues with them. Once the bus is gone, I could see individuals/parties retaliating against the rural person who initiated a legal proceeding.

That said, I think assistance with basic legal issues can be invaluable, like the woman who needed help refinancing her loan, or someone who wants to change their name, etc. Help and support with this kind of issue could be life changing to many people.

Courtney said...

My initial reaction to reading about this traveling court ferryboat was -- what a cool job! You could be a lawyer reaching underserved communities and live/work on a boat. After I got over that initial excitement and thought more about these "justice bus" issues, I came to a different realization. I also think there is a lot of potential withe brining certain services to rural areas through this kind of program, but I also worry it may end up being a band aid for the program. There may be something to say for having lawyers with some roots in rural communities. They may be able to better understand their clients or the local communities may trust them more if they are actually a part of that community as opposed to an outsider. Perhaps I'm being too negative, but I am imagining some attorney from a law firm in San Francisco that makes a ton of money and lives in a high rise condo being told they need more pro bono hours for the year and here is one way they can get a few in-- just hop on this bus and save those poor people in the middle of nowhere! I'm sure that is definitely not the majority of justice bus participants, but I imagine a rural community may have that sentiment. I think the other programs you talked about, South Dakota's Rural Attorney Recruitment Program and Nebraska's rural LRAP program, could be more beneficial. If it was incentivized for young lawyers to move to rural places and put down roots for a few years at least, then it could help out public interest lawyers and rural communities.

K. Harrington said...

Interesting post! The mobile justice phenomenon reminds me of how the Supreme Court used to travel from town to town to hold trials in the early 1800s. At this time, it was not uncommon for judges, private lawyers, and government attorneys to travel thousands of miles each year to hear federal cases and teach others about federal law. Although it seemed like a difficult life, it was considered cost-efficient for the federal government and allowed the judges to learn about state laws and issues. It is interesting to think about how the same methods are being used today to provide rural people with access to justice, when the majority of justices and lawyers barely exist outside of their courtrooms and offices.

A few comments mentioned that lawyers without roots in rural communities may not be able to fully understand their clients. Although I agree with this point, I wonder if the same is really true for judges? In some ways, the idea of bringing judges to the source of a dispute or to the ground level with a local community may have some positive effects. It might provide judges with a new perspective about the parties and rural life. On the flip side, rural communities may not know much about the judiciary and this model would make judges more accessible to the public.