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From the President

California’s legal frontier:
Where rural justice is hard to find

By Bill Hebert
President, State Bar of California

Bill HebertOf the more than 5 million Californians who live in rural areas, nearly one-third — 1.6 million — are eligible for legal aid. And although they face the same issues confronted by the urban community, their needs are more acute: rural Californians live with a higher percentage of substandard housing, unemployment, low educational levels and less access to health care than do city dwellers.

The statistics on the rural poor are startling. Approximately 36 percent require free legal services every year to maintain their housing, income and safety. Fifteen percent have incomes below the federal poverty level. Twenty-eight percent are retired and 31 percent have disabilities. Where do they turn for help? Sadly, the answer all too often is — nowhere. The level of services currently available does not provide even minimal assistance to two-thirds of those in need. And their ability to find solutions to their legal problems is typically hampered, even compounded, by where they live.

Underlying these statistics are the stories of real people. For example, because of inclement weather, a senior living in the rural Sierra foothills was unable to respond to a levy placed on his bank account. Although he was entitled to exemption from the claim because he relied on Social Security, the bank didn’t have proof that his income was protected. A local legal services agency helped him win the exemption. Or consider a renter in a remote area of the Central Valley who faced eviction when the owner of the property defaulted and took the appliances. The woman bought her own appliances but it was only through a local legal aid program that she received $7,000 in relocation expenses — and kept the appliances.

According to a report issued last month by the California Commission on Access to Justice, issues facing the rural poor are severe. The report, Improving Civil Justice in Rural California, singles out six that are specific to rural communities:

Foreclosures on rural homes are common, partly because lenders issued a greater percentage of subprime loans in rural than urban areas between 2005 and 2008. In addition, large numbers of agricultural workers have inadequate housing; many live in their vehicles for at least part of the year. 

Higher education: Only 18 percent of the rural population has a college degree (as compared to 32 percent of the urban population).

High attorney turnover: Rural legal aid programs face difficulty recruiting and retaining attorneys in rural areas, where there is less pay, less professional support and few urban amenities.

Distance: Clients who must travel more than 25 miles for legal assistance are six times less likely to have their needs met and half as likely to know about available assistance. In other words, isolation compounds their problems.

Technology: Cell phone and broadband access are nonexistent or extremely expensive in remote areas. At the same time, incomes are lower and libraries less equipped and farther apart than in urban areas. Only 58 percent of rural people have Internet access at home, compared to 63 percent of urban dwellers.

Few local resources: There are no large law firms that can be a source of pro bono services, there are fewer law schools, corporate headquarters and foundations than exist in urban settings.

Let’s not forget funding, always the most serious challenge to legal services, irrespective of location. According to the report, funding for legal aid in rural counties stands at $18.56 per person, compared with $26.45 in mixed urban/rural communities and $44.83 per person in California’s seven urban counties.

In addition to urging increased funding, the report offers a series of recommendations to address the inequities experienced by rural residents with unmet legal needs: 

Establishment of a statewide “Friends of Rural Legal Aid” committee to support the work of rural legal aid providers.

Establishment of local rural access task forces to coordinate and strengthen delivery of legal services in rural areas. Their first step should be to identify specific gaps in services. 

Development of minimum access guidelines to ensure a baseline funding level and a move toward statewide parity.

Encouraging attorneys to fulfill their pro bono requirements in rural areas.

 Many private attorneys in urban communities, including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Jose and San Francisco, already give generously of their time. They can help even more by adding remote areas of the state to their focus. Local legal and community groups can create partnerships with rural organizations to jointly work toward solutions. Increased funding, while a difficult goal in the current economic climate, is a must. Our leaders in government need to initiate an open dialogue about how to help the less populated areas of the state.

Oct. 24-30 marks the second National Pro Bono Celebration, sponsored by the American Bar Association’s Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service. Our board of governors is on record supporting the celebration and I encourage you to visit, which includes a resource section offering ideas, strategies and ways to help. In addition, a pro bono conference will be held Oct. 12 in Los Angeles, where members of the legal community can avail themselves of the latest information about pro bono best practices. State Bar staff can provide information to any interested lawyer; contact Rodney Low 415-538-2219,, or Sharon Ngim, 415-538-2267, for assistance.

One of my goals as president this year is to help achieve a reduction in the gap between legal services and legal needs. With your help, we can meet that goal.