Sunday, January 7, 2018

Wisconsin bill seeks to address lack of legal representation for low-income rural citizens

It always makes me happy to read news about states taking substantive action to address the rural lawyer shortage. It especially makes me happy when the action has bipartisan support. In Wisconsin, there is a bill, pending before both houses of the state legislature, that would provide up to $20,000 in student loan relief for attorneys who practice in rural communities and take at least fifty public defender cases per year.

As I have mentioned before in this space, there is a shortage of attorneys in almost every rural space in the country, a fact that leaves rural people without the ability to access the legal system and often exacerbates social inequalities that already exist. The distribution of attorneys in every state, even predominantly rural states, is defined by a clustering in urban centers and a shortage in rural spaces.  As the linked article notes regarding Wisconsin: 64% of attorneys practice in just three urban counties while twenty-three counties have twenty or fewer practicing attorneys and fifteen have ten or fewer practicing attorneys.

Contrary to popular wisdom, there is not an attorney surplus. The fact is that too many people have clustered into areas that are perceived to have more jobs and too few are going to where the work is actually needed. However, it is not as simple as asking someone to just move to a rural community and start working. There is also relatively little funding to actually pay people to do work that serves low-income rural populations. A legal services office is a resource and possible employer but in many states, when legal aid funding is cut, the rural offices are the first to close. There are also few programs and grants that help provide seed funding to help young lawyers start their own firms in rural spaces. Even if a person wanted to move to a rural space and start working, there may also be seemingly insurmountable barriers in the way. This bill seeks to remove one of the barriers, student loan debt.

This bill is also important because it helps to ensure that the Constitutional rights of rural people are actually respected. The right to counsel is a fundamental right for anyone who interacts with our legal system and when there is a lawyer shortage, that right is imperiled. It is important that we ensure that anyone who is accused of a crime has access to competent counsel and an attorney that is overburdened with cases may not be able to offer that. A person's access to competent counsel should not be restricted by their income or geographic location.

No comments: