Discover the Latest Innovations and Lessons Learned in Rule of Law and Legal Empowerment Projects
From September-October 2015, I took a road trip across the United States, and in addition to seeing many national parks and historic sites, I had an opportunity to sit down with legal aid organizations across the country to hear about the interesting work they’re doing to assist low-income communities. Check out a few things I learned below!
1.Sustaining Legal Aid
A few questions that are often asked by legal service organizations are how to become financially sustainable and how to encourage attorneys to take on pro bono cases. In Kansas, the Legal Service office offers free Continuing Legal Education (CLE) classes to attorneys in exchange for assistance with a case. Letters are sent to private attorneys in the area to consider either taking on a case pro bono, or if they’re too busy, to contribute one billable hour of funding.
2. Reaching Clients in Remote Areas
In Idaho, a state with one of the lowest population densities in the US, it can be a challenge to reach individuals in distant parts of the state. In one area, there are two attorneys responsible for covering 10 counties. As a result, Idaho Legal Aid Services has looked to technology to provide individuals with better access to justice. In addition to having a website that offers significant educational content, they also offer legal assistance using Skype to reach clients in more remote areas.
3. Veterans & Ex-Combatants
In Wyoming, Legal Aid of Wyoming and others organize Stand Down clinics, where volunteer attorneys offer information and legal services on a range of issues from homelessness, housing, disability, healthcare, employment, education, substance abuse treatment, child support, and more. In post-conflict countries, given the social and economic challenges that ex-combatants face in reintegrating back into society, initiatives such as the Stand Down clinics may offer useful tools to facilitate this.
4. Trauma, School Discipline, and Legal Aid
The ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ refers to a strict disciplinary policy which pushes at-risk youth out of the school and into the justice system. The rate of students who are expelled or suspended from school in the US has dramatically increased in recent years and often times these students stop pursuing education altogether due to their inability to get back into the school system. To address this challenge, schools around the country have started instituting trauma-informed classrooms. This is due in part to new studies which indicate that many students who are found to be disruptive, absent, or unmotivated, and who subsequently face harsh disciplinary measures at school, may in fact be suffering from trauma. Childhood trauma, it was found, damages brain development in a child and consequently makes it difficult for them to function in school.
In Massachusetts, Harvard Law School’s Education Law Clinic assists parents by advocating for children who have been expelled from school. During the course of their work, they found parents often confirmed that their child had previously been exposed to violence. This realization led the Clinic to successfully advocate for the state to adopt a law which provides “much broader protection for students at risk by supporting schools to do such things as aligning existing anti-bullying and dropout prevention programs, recognizing warning signs of stress, and providing positive reinforcement rather than knee-jerk discipline.”
5. Economic Empowerment
In Missouri, the Legal Services of Eastern Missouri will provide free legal advice to low-income women and minority entrepreneurs who are starting up or scaling community businesses in order to increase economic development in low-income areas.