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.)
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.
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.