Mentoring Matters, 0521 COBJ, Vol. 50, No. 5 Pg. 14

AuthorBY COURTNEY D. SOMMER
PositionVol. 50, 5 [Page 14]

50 Colo.Law. 14

MENTORING MATTERS

No. Vol. 50, No. 5 [Page 14]

Colorado Lawyer

May, 2021

Rural Access to Justice through Mentoring

BY COURTNEY D. SOMMER

It should come as no surprise to legal professionals that there is an access to justice problem in rural America.[1] Access to justice is defined as the ability of people to seek and obtain a remedy for grievances through formal or informal institutions of justice.2 There is no access to justice where citizens (especially marginalized groups) fear the system, see it as alien, and do not access it; where the justice system is financially inaccessible; where individuals have no lawyers; where they do not have information or knowledge of rights; or where there is a weak justice system.3

Legal Deserts and the Rural Attorney

Colorado is no exception to the access to justice crisis, specifically as it pertains to a lack of lawyers in rural Colorado communities. The majority of Colorado lawyers practice in the Denver metro area or other smaller cities,[4] creating legal deserts in many rural areas on the Eastern Plains and Western Slope. Only roughly 7% of Colorado attorneys reported practicing in smaller mountain or plains communities in the state in 2019.5 And in many rural jurisdictions, attorneys practice alone or in small firms, and are often the only attorney in their community.6

The combined obstacles of limited numbers and isolation creates a hurdle for rural attorneys when it comes to connecting with other lawyers and succession planning when it is time to wind down practice. A solo attorney who has been the only lawyer known to her rural community will leave a lack of access to services when she retires without another attorney to take over her practice.7 This creates not only an ethical issue for the attorney, but also an access to justice issue for her community.

In the communities already facing a lack of legal services, residents with legal needs must sometimes travel hundreds of miles to find legal services.8 Further, public defenders are rare commodities in rural America, meaning criminal defendants do not have the same access to their constitutionally provided legal representative as their Denver counterpart.9

Many states have attempted to address this crisis in unique ways. In South Dakota, the state bar association created a program that gave a select number of attorneys a financial incentive to move to rural communities throughout the state and practice law there for five years.10 In Washington, non-attorney advocates are granted a limited license status to provide basic civil legal services.11 And in Iowa, a program created by the state bar association encourages clerkships between law students and rural lawyers in the hope that the lawyers will hire the law students as associates after graduation.12

Colorado has worked to address its own access to justice crisis by staffing self-represented litigant coordinators and family court facilitators in each of the state’s 22 judicial districts.13 The state also offers more than 2,400 legal clinics, including remote clinics held online to provide assistance in rural areas.14 Colorado has also endeavored to address its residents’ legal needs through the formation of local access to justice committees in all but one of the state’s 22 judicial districts.15 And while these programs help the unrepresented litigant and resident with legal needs that can be addressed through these channels, they cannot solve the “acute lack of lawyers in rural areas” or the economic impact a lack of access to justice has on the community.16

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