The “Eliminating Barriers to Justice” conference at Georgia State University School of Law gathered A2J experts together to discuss access to justice for Georgia’s rural population, specifically for those who speak limited English or have a disability.
During the event, Georgia Supreme Court Justice Nels Peterson noted that access to justice means more than having access to a lawyer. From the Daily Report Online:
The lack of lawyers for people who need help with civil matters in underserved areas is about more than law; it’s about economics, transportation, health care and education, the justice said. People in the South Georgia counties with no lawyers, and the many others with only a handful, have more needs than just legal, he said.
I know there’s been a push for public service lawyers to practice holistic legal representation, and for good reason. When I interned with the Georgia Justice Project years ago on their expungement project, I noticed that clients faced a multitude of barriers to employment beyond their criminal records: lack of access to disability or veterans benefits, housing issues, child support issues, etc.
It was not effective to ignore these other problems and focus solely on criminal records, so attorneys would often triage legal issues according to urgency. Clients were sometimes routed to local partners, such as medical-legal partnerships, social workers, or government agencies.
The Daily Report Online article also features A2J lawbrarian Laureen Kelly, who I talked about a couple of weeks ago on this blog. Since that #TBT article was written, it looks like Kelly has received some much-needed support to offer legal “self-help” services to Georgia’s rural pro se litigants:
She created and expanded a law library in the Daugherty County Courthouse, where she works daily providing research and assistance to people who can’t find or can’t afford a lawyer. She serves on the State Bar of Georgia Access to Justice Committee, which has won a grant to address the rural lawyer shortage. The plan is to use the grant to expand Kelly’s library and make it a pilot project for other parts of the state to copy.
If people in Atlanta or other cities don’t fully understand the needs of rural areas, Kelly seeks to be the translator. When people asked why the state can’t simply provide more legal aid lawyers, Kelly explained that often those who come to her for help do not meet the low-income requirements for legal aid help, but they don’t have the money to pay a lawyer either. Or they do meet the guidelines, but they have a need that legal aid lawyers aren’t allowed to handle such as divorce. Or the legal aid lawyers are already overbooked.
When someone asked why people in underserved areas don’t just use their computers and broadband internet to get help online, Kelly explained than many of the people who walk into her second-floor library don’t have laptops and tablets. A significant number of them can’t read or write, she said.
You can read the full article here. Kelly and all the other A2J lawbrarians out there are undoubtedly amazing for walking so many non-attorneys through the clunky and not-user-friendly-at-all legal system.
I’m always hunting for free, ready-made tools and resources that could facilitate the time-consuming process of explaining legal research and issues to law library patrons. With the help of these resources, law librarians may also be better able to hone in on other legal, social, or medical issues pro se litigants are facing.