Could a solution to provide legal care in Alaska work in rural Minnesota?
Through a grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers will expand Alaska’s ‘community justice worker’ model, allowing non-attorneys to represent people.
This story was originally published by MinnPost.
Those living in rural areas face several challenges when it comes to accessing legal care; challenges that oftentimes affect their health and can prevent them from getting out of unsafe situations.
A model that’s been successful in Alaska may address some of those legal challenges. Michele Statz, associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, refers to them as “health harming legal needs.”
Statz has conducted research on access to civil justice in rural, tribal and state court jurisdictions, primarily across northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin. She has noticed that statewide solutions don’t always address the challenges that rural communities face when seeking legal care.
“The prevailing ‘access to justice’ (initiatives) are almost unfailingly designed by people in urban areas with urban populations in mind,” she said.
Statz views legal care as something that can determine someone’s future outcomes, not just job or housing opportunities, but even one’s health.
“If (these issues) are not addressed in a timely and accountable and trusted way, they often compound existing health issues or introduce brand new health problems for individuals and families,” Statz said. “I see that as a crisis when it comes to health and well-being not only in that immediate moment, but also there are profound health implications for not being able to address the fact that your utilities have been shut off in the winter, or the fact that you're evicted and there's no affordable housing in a rural community.”
Through a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Statz and a team of researchers will be evaluating Alaska’s “community justice worker” model, which has allowed non-attorneys to represent people – giving people who are embedded in communities the tools to provide legal care.
Rural attorney shortage
Northern Minnesota, like many other rural communities, has an attorney shortage, which Statz thinks could be attributed to the fact that many lawyers are retiring and not being replaced, and that Legal Aid centers are usually in urban areas.
Minnesota has several services often termed as “self-help supports” that are forms of support for people who are trying to represent themselves, but those don’t address many challenges that communities face, Statz said.
“They (the supports) really assume that people will have smartphones and cellular reception and broadband and tablets. And not only legal literacy, but also technological literacy. They're often also predicated on broader infrastructure assumptions … like they can get to the courthouse on time, and if they can't, they can just Zoom in. Those kinds of assumptions just don't work in many rural communities and they definitely don't work for rural individuals who might not have reliable personal transportation, who might not have consistent childcare, who might be doing shift work, who can’t necessarily drive three hours to the nearest legal aid center,” Statz said.
In her research, she’s found that those supports can be “humiliating” because of its inaccessibility.
“(It’s like) ‘Trying to represent yourself is basically like going to the doctor's office and being told not only that you have to diagnose your health issue, but also that you have to figure out your entire course of treatment,’” Statz recalled someone telling her.
What does Alaska’s community justice worker model do?
The community justice worker (CJW) model in Alaska is rooted in the community health aide/practitioner model that was implemented in 1968. That program sought to equip people with the proper training within communities to provide health care for their communities. Today, around 550 practitioners help with health care needs across 170 rural Alaskan villages through that program.
In 2019, Alaska Legal Services thought of applying a similar model to improve access to legal services. So Alaska Legal Services Corporation, Alaska Pacific University and Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, designed different tools to give specific legal training to people who work at various community serving organizations.
“It's really kind of building off an existing infrastructure and capitalizing on the commitment and skills and accessibility of people who are already there,” Statz said. “For example, if someone is already based at a domestic violence shelter, then that person can receive training in how to write an order for protection.”
In November of 2022, the Alaska’s Supreme Court, with support from the state’s bar association, passed a waiver allowing community justice workers to legally represent clients for some issues in tribal and state courts.
“This is the first in the nation to happen, and it's just monumental. It’s hard to describe just how revolutionary that is,” Statz said.
Is there a future for CJW in Minnesota?
Statz and her team are seeking to create a community justice worker resource center based in Anchorage to be a hub, along with piloting more CJWs in the cities of Bethel, Alaska and Kodiak, Alaska.
They will also be doing research to find if this solution is working, if it is scalable, and how it could be replicated elsewhere.
Support for the model
There is also interest from the tribal and state court judges, along with social service providers, Statz said. Judge Robert Friday, a judge for the 6th Judicial District Court of Minnesota, thinks there are a number of legal areas where the model would make sense to implement.
He sees the value of the model, but believes the areas of law CJWs practice must be those where there are shortages of lawyers – so it doesn't set a precedent that rural areas and low income communities don’t need access to an attorney. But for areas of law with few lawyers, like public benefits and housing rights, he thinks it could improve outcomes.
“If you look at the areas that the community justice workers are actually trained in (in Alaska), they’re all areas where you’re not building in a new inequity. Family law, for example, isn't one of the areas,” Friday said.
Heather Lindula said it is her dream to get CJWs in the rural Minnesota. Lindula is the coordinated entry priority list manager for northern St. Louis County and the Northeast MN Continuum of Care, which includes Aitkin, Carlton, Cook, Itasca, Koochiching, and Lake Counties, where she manages the list for people experiencing homeless to access housing.
She previously worked as a housing advocate at Legal Aid for 11 years. Looking back at the needs of clients there, she said they would have benefitted from legal support around notices to vacate, repair issues, lease violations, housing denial for subsidized housing and evictions.
Housing denial was one area where people didn’t know they could appeal the decision.
“They just sort of assumed, ‘If I was denied, I was denied, and there's nothing I can do.’ Or, ‘If a friend was denied, then I'm not even going to apply because I know that I’ll be denied and can't get in,’” Lindula said.
Friday thinks a benefit of the model is people are already in the community, which could benefit Indigenous communities in particular.
“If you can have the Indigenous or the Native population have workers that they're familiar with, that are hopefully also members of their tribe, it would be a game changer,” Friday said. “Just because of the amount of historic distrust there is.”
Some members of the state bar might be resistant to the idea of an unauthorized practice of law waiver, Statz said. But she says the training is “specific and rigorous” – and practitioners would always be working under supervision of an attorney.
“No one's going to go out there and just go rogue,” she said. “It's still a process of credentialing and training and supervision. So in that regard, there are a lot of safeguards, and I think that will make it much easier for members of the legal community to understand and appreciate.”