Pro Bono News

Too Few Lawyers? Access to Justice in Rural Communities (NY)

Friday, January 11, 2019

Too Few Lawyers? Access to Justice in Rural Communities

"With growing populations downstate, declining populations upstate and aging populations statewide, our communities—whether rural, metropolitan or suburban—are facing evolving obstacles to ensuring access to justice for all New Yorkers. During my first year as Presiding Justice of the Third Department many attorneys have shared their concerns about the availability of legal services, and particularly in the rural regions, as many are located within my Department. The geographical and demographic circumstances in rural settings pose unique challenges, and these are issues that our court system, legal service providers, and other stakeholders are actively working to address.

Recognizing that many of my readers will be in urban areas, let me begin by stating that there are multiple opportunities for a successful legal career outside of urban settings; and there is great joy to be found in a quiet small town or rural setting. Our upstate communities are not particularly diverse, but neither are they hostile to diversity. The people residing in our towns, villages, and farm communities are much more likely to be broad-minded and big hearted than the opposite; I share this observation based upon decades of personal experience. So, to any readers wondering whether their quality of life may be enhanced by a closer connection to nature, let me clearly say that mine has been, and more than that, that I have never lacked opportunities for personal and career growth and service while living in rural upstate communities. These are communities filled to overflowing with history and beauty—and populated by good neighbors.

However, attorneys in rural areas are scarce. Although New York state has one of the highest rates of attorneys per capita in the nation, most areas outside of New York City have far fewer lawyers. Many rural counties have only one or two attorneys per 1,000 residents. The dearth of legal help can make it difficult for people to obtain the routine legal advice necessary to successfully plan for the future, manage their businesses and organize their lives. It also complicates the critical work of securing basic life necessities for those living in poverty. Rural residents are often left to handle their legal problems without the assistance of an attorney.
In response to these challenges, leaders in our court system and the legal profession are working to get more New Yorkers the legal help they need to keep our communities thriving. For example, the Rural Law Center of New York is providing legal services for low-income, rural New Yorkers throughout the state. The Rural Law Center has also partnered with the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction to support the Pro Bono Appeals Program, which operates in the Third and Fourth Departments of the Appellate Division. Another project, The Rural Law Initiative, is a pilot program created by Albany Law School’s Government Law Center, with partial funding provided by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The Initiative is intended to provide non-representative legal advice to farms, small businesses and entrepreneurs in rural areas, on matters including business formation, land use, financial literacy, regulatory matters and more. This program also connects participants to attorneys who can provide more comprehensive representation, and refers non-eligible individuals to other sources of free or low-cost legal assistance. The Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York and Pro Bono Net have also collaborated on an innovative program called “Closing the Gap.” This initiative uses technology to connect low-income rural litigants with remote volunteer attorneys in the Capital District who provide limited scope representation. These programs are some examples of creative problem solving aimed at tackling the unique barriers to providing sufficient legal representation in rural communities. (For a more thorough and extensive treatment of this topic, see the recent issue of the NYSBA Government, Law and Policy Journal devoted to Rural Justice in New York State.).."

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