Legal Helpers In Tribal Lands Work To Adapt As Virus Lingers

By Kevin Penton | August 9, 2020, 8:02 PM EDT

The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated how attorneys everywhere serve their clients. For lawyers who serve older Native Americans in rural parts of Oklahoma, that has meant getting creative to safely continue their work.

Every summer, lawyers with Oklahoma Indian Legal Services Inc. pack up scores of legal documents and hit the road, bringing a mobile law office to tribal lands throughout the state. This year, the organization adapted its service by going with a so-called drive-through approach.

Native American elders are asked to remain inside their vehicles while reviewing and finalizing wills, power of attorney authorizations, advanced directives and similar documents, according to Stephanie Hudson, the group's executive director. The group's lawyers remain nearby, wearing masks, she said Wednesday.

"Our attorneys had been very distressed about the fact that they had not been able to get out there," Hudson said, speaking as part of a panel on the impact of COVID-19 on providing legal services to Native Americans. "What we have done is we have changed our game plan."

Nearly 34,000 positive COVID-19 cases among Native Americans had been reported to the federal government's Indian Health Service as of Wednesday, according to the agency's website.

Tribal courts in Indian Country have had to grapple with many of the same coronavirus concerns as other state, federal and municipal facilities. The type of cases that the court systems handle and the laws that they use vary by tribe, although their laws are generally applied to tribal members.

In Arizona, the courts have generally not done a good job of maintaining regular hours and publicizing when they are open, said Anthony Young, executive director of Southern Arizona Legal Aid, during a Wednesday panel. The panel with Hudson and Young was part of a broader event hosted by the Legal Services Corporation on ensuring access to justice for low income Americans amid the pandemic.

Much legal activity in tribal courts in Arizona has shifted online, like in other parts of the country, Young said. But with broadband access spotty in many rural parts of the southwestern state, some individuals have had difficulty uploading important documents onto court dockets, he said.

Some tribal courts in recent weeks have begun to reshift towards hearings conducted inside actual courtrooms, rather than on the telephone or through virtual apps such as Zoom, Young said.

But the liberal use of Plexiglas inside courtrooms, along with the social distancing requirement that lawyers and their clients keep at least 6 feet away from each other, has made justice a challenge in tribal courts throughout Arizona, according to Young.

"The clients on the reservations that we serve have not experienced different legal problems than the communities outside of the reservation," said Young, who noted that the only significant difference has been a lack of residential evictions, as tribes generally provide housing for members.

LSC, the country's largest funder of legal aid, revealed in a study released last month that, although all of its grantees are continuing to provide services either in person or remotely to deal with the pandemic's fallout, they say they are seeing an almost 18% average increase in the number of clients eligible for services.

Wednesday's forum also included conversations on access to justice issues impacting non-Native American individuals, with top legal officials from companies such as Apple, Home Depot, 3M and Clorox speaking on what the corporations are doing on the topic.

At the American Bar Association, the organization is following through on several initiatives related to access to justice issues and COVID-19, including a task force that is examining how to adequately provide legal services during the pandemic to low-income individuals who may be facing issues such as domestic violence, evictions and bankruptcies, said Patricia Lee Refo, the ABA's new president.

The ABA has also tasked a separate group with preparing lawyers for what will change and stay the same in a post-COVID legal world, and how attorneys can learn the skills they will need to best serve their clients in the new environment, Refo said Wednesday during LSC's forum.

"All the change and disruption in recent months is, at the same time, producing a real opportunity for change," Refo said.

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--Additional reporting by Emma Cueto. Editing by Katherine Rautenberg.

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