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Legal Aid Groups Think Bold To Fill Rural Gaps

By RJ Vogt | May 12, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

Living in a vast state where wide swaths of land are unreachable by road, many Alaskans lack regular access to police, courts and the legal services that concentrate in urban areas. To combat the problem, the Alaska Legal Services Corp. had to accept one fundamental fact.

"We're never going to be able to bridge the justice gap by just using lawyers," Nikole Nelson, the group's director, told a room full of lawyers last week. "It's not going to work in our rural communities."

Such was the theme in session after session on bridging rural America's justice gap during last week's Equal Justice Conference, held in Louisville, Kentucky, by the American Bar Association and National Legal Aid and Defenders Association.

Legal aid practitioners and researchers proclaimed the need to think outside the box and meet people where their needs are, especially in the rural communities that make up 20% of the U.S. population and just 2% of the U.S. population of lawyers.

Nelson knows firsthand the struggle of serving rural places, considering Alaska has just 1 person per 1.2 square miles. She said that reaching most of the state's 229 federally recognized Native American tribes requires transportation by plane, boat or snowmobile.

Faced with those hurdles, Nelson said she realized her organization needed to use an existing support network that already supplies many rural residents with social services: Alaska's tribal health care system.

"It became very clear that if we could work with our health care providers, we could have a much stronger footprint," Nelson said.

Using "Justice For All" grant money from the National Center for State Courts and the Public Welfare Foundation, ALSC placed AmeriCorps members at six tribally operated health care facilities to address civil issues that can harm health, like family disputes.

After one year, the placements showed a 6-to-1 return on investment with an estimated savings of nearly $300,000 in costs related to emergency shelters and domestic violence.

But to expand legal services even further, the group has also developed a "pro bono advocate" training program geared toward enabling nonlawyers to provide basic legal services in key areas of unmet need.

For example, ALSC found that the state's 71% rate of food stamp benefit denials is the highest in the country, most of it happening in indigenous communities.

Using the training module, people like law students, tribal nonprofit workers, community leaders and even behavioral health aides can learn about the benefits program's regulations, with oversight and feedback provided by ALSC staff and pro bono lawyers. The program is written at an eighth grade reading level and includes interactive features like videos and discussion boards.

After completing the module, trained nonlawyers are ready to address a benefits claim. Nelson said researchers at Harvard University Law School's Access to Justice Lab are conducting a long-term randomized study to determine the effectiveness of these nonattorney advocates compared with attorneys in food stamp cases.

This concept — supplying services via people who are already trusted by rural populations, instead of out-of-town lawyers — is not unique to Alaska.

During another session, Heather Scheiwe Kulp, the alternative dispute resolution coordinator of New Hampshire's judicial branch, and Amanda Kool, co-founder of the Alliance for Lawyers and Rural America, pointed out that librarians or church officials can simplify rural access to justice by meeting people where they already congregate.

"Make it so that people only have to go one place to get health care, public benefits met and also help with their court forms," Kulp said. "Create these hubs in places where people already meet in the community."

In areas such as rural New England, "there should be court forms at the general store and someone there to help you fill them out," she added.

Another spin on that idea is the so-called Justice Bus, a vehicle developed by Kentucky's Legal Aid of the Bluegrass. It hit the road last summer, featuring bench seating for six as well as a desk, computers, video-call tools, a printer and Wi-Fi. The legal aid group can use the bus to reach more than 100,000 residents in rural northern Kentucky counties.

Kool, who after years of law school and practice in the Boston area returned to her native Kentucky to live in Bracken County, population 8,000, believes in yet another solution for meeting unmet rural legal needs: helping more lawyers realize that rural living has a lot going for it, as she did.

"I loved Boston," she said. "But I'm happier here. I'm not going anywhere."

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

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