Courthouse law libraries in northeastern Minnesota. "While mentioned as an exciting resource by many regional state and state bar association stakeholders, the availability of...courthouse law libraries meant very little to low-income litigants. Overwhelmingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, low-income research participants described available law library resources as difficult to understand." Photos by Michele Statz. (Source:“They Had Access, but They Didn't Get Justice”: Why Prevailing Access to Justice Initiatives Fail Rural Americans" Report)

Many legal-aid programs don’t work in rural areas because they are designed to serve large cities, a new research study says. The result is that low-income rural residents aren’t getting equal access to justice, according to a new paper published in the paper in the Georgetown Journal on Poverty Law Policy. 

Researchers Michele Statz, Robert Friday, and Jon Bredeson say that access-to-justice programs built on urban models fail rural people on three fronts: 

  • They do not account for the lack of infrastructure like broadband that is available to rural people—especially low income ones.
  • They incorrectly presume that anyone in a crisis can effectively be their own attorney.
  • And their standards for justice do not line up with rural Americans’ own expectations. 

The authors use northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin—locally nicknamed the Northland—as a case study in rural justice access. “The Northland region evidences many of the socioeconomic and spatial trends that characterize rural U.S. regions more broadly,” they wrote.

The majority of Wisconsin’s highest poverty rates are concentrated in its northernmost, rural areas. The state’s Northland economies are largely reliant on the extraction and manufacturing industries, which have drastically reduced employment in recent decades. 

The area suffers from an absence of large legal firms, limited social services, and rural lawyer shortages that are accelerated by a graying pool of local attorneys. “Legal deserts” like this one significantly reduce the efficacy of state and federal legal aid funding. Even if the cash support is there, the practitioners aren’t around to take advantage of it. 

“Why is it that we have given up on the gold standard of both parties being represented by attorneys to settle for something less, particularly for rural communities?”

Michele Statz, Robert Friday, and Jon Bredeso

In rural areas, only 14% of civil litigants receive legal assistance. The other 86% are left to defend themselves in court. This rate of civil representation is less than half the national average. 

In Wisconsin, rural criminal defendants can wait as long as four months to be assigned a public defender. Rural tribal courts fare no better, with most defendants self-representing. 

According to the authors, there are critical gaps between the perceptions of metropolitan lawmakers and the experiences of rural litigants when it comes to access-to-justice solutions. 

“Most simply, the initiatives touted as advancing ‘equal administration of justice for all’ often prove to be the very same self-help forms, helplines, and online resources that low-income rural residents identify as barriers to justice,” stated the study.

Lack of internet access, lagging technological literacy, and a dearth of legal guidance all inhibit the chances of a just legal result for the rural poor, the report says.

Technological fixes are inadequate, wrote the authors, because they presume access both to smartphones and broadband, both of which are disproportionately inaccessible to rural residents. “Without addressing the rural digital divide, the ability of technology to close rural civil justice gaps remains limited.”

While lack of access to technology can be a barrier, rural people trying to access the legal system are rarely surprised by the struggles it creates. 

“For rural low-income individuals who are already acutely aware of how public policies actively and inequitably disadvantage rural livelihoods, infrastructure, and health and welfare,” they wrote, “it is simply ‘normal’ that current [access-to-justice] initiatives would be experienced as stressful, insufficient, and even humiliating. We call this sense of loss and distrust the ‘hegemony of defeat.’”

Throughout the paper, the authors argued that an insufficient standard for “justice” is being used. They gave the example of two people navigating a complicated custody case in rural Minnesota without attorneys. In this case, each party successfully navigated the forms they were required to complete, and each gave about a paragraph’s worth of testimony. 

While the parents were each able to perform an attorney’s technical role, neither were able to fully represent themselves through non-required evidence and narrative. 

But a lawyer’s role is not simply to perform administrative tasks, the authors wrote. It’s also to gain a deep understanding of their client’s story. In this case, the stakes were high: the futures of a 4-year-old and a 2-year-old hung in the balance. 

“Why I need your help,” said one Northland attorney in an interview for the study, “is probably based on several things that led up to this, which may or may not involve chemicals, or mental illness, or child sexual abuse, or current or recent or past mental, physical, emotional or financial abuse by a partner. You have to know [a client’s] backstory. Sometimes as far back as when they were 3.”

The paper questions the abandonment of traditional standards within rural courts. “Why is it that we have given up on the gold standard of both parties being represented by attorneys to settle for something less, particularly for rural communities?”

The authors called on the American Bar Association, state bar associations, local bar associations, law schools, and the judiciary to act. “The inability of the [legal] profession to mobilize in support of [access to justice] as a necessary component places the profession at risk of being unneeded, or more likely unwanted, as disparities increase,” they wrote.