Broadening Access to Justice in Rural California
The problem is pronounced in many areas — attorneys are concentrated in cities, far removed from the 1.6 million rural residents eligible for legal aid. The few legal services nonprofits serving rural areas cover large geographic regions with limited resources.
Julia Wilson, CEO of OneJustice, witnessed the disparity when her great aunt living in a rural community was victimized by a repeat financial scam. “We had the resources that many in rural places do not, and it was still difficult to bring the problem to a close,” she recalls.
Wilson’s organization launched a Rural Justice Initiative to help fill the gap. The result was a first-of-its-kind Justice Bus that brings volunteer lawyers and students from urban areas to staff 70 legal clinics per year in underserved rural locales. Volunteers provide hours of vital legal service to people often lined up for a block or more.
“We focus on simple, solvable legal issues with profound effects in people’s lives,” says Wilson. Her team helps veterans access benefits, immigrants work toward citizenship, seniors conduct end-of-life planning, and people with prior convictions change their records.
OneJustice continues to innovate on ways to broaden access to legal services. Recently, staff began matching volunteer lawyers with rural clients via online conferencing — an economical option for resolving issues too complex for a mobile clinic.
Seventy-seven percent of those OneJustice serves report improvements in their legal situation. For some, this means the ability to find work and support a family. For others, it means coming out of the shadows after living in fear.
“Think about lawyers as a natural resource. If most of the water in the state of California were concentrated in our major cities, we’d have to find a way to get water to other places, too,” says Wilson.
Wilson says more financial and human resources are needed to adequately serve the legal needs of low-income Californians throughout the state. “If only a small percentage of California’s 166,000 lawyers would lend a hand, we could double the number serving and change the landscape.”
Video by Talking Eyes Media