United Way: Advocates brainstorm ways to ease access to lawyers

Maybe your apartment is leaking and the floor is falling through, but your landlord will not address the issue because the waiting list for affordable housing makes it easy to fill vacancies. Lack of funds for deposits or higher rent, prevent you from moving out of this substandard housing.  Solutions seem beyond reach.

Even though Escambia County has a diverse network of human service agencies to help with child care, bus passes, food, rent and utilities, these resources are often short-term relief for larger problems. Sometimes, the true problem is legal in nature. Unfortunately, many who live in or on the brink of poverty don’t trust the system; and, they lack the funding needed to navigate legal issues. How do they gain confidence in our legal systems if they believe that same system has treated them unjustly?

This question was the impetus behind a meeting of community representatives from the United Way, Pathways for Change, Legal Services of North Florida, Gulf Power, University of West Florida, the Escambia-Santa Rosa Bar Association and Community Action Program. With the support of the Florida Bar Foundation, representatives brainstormed the challenges surrounding access to legal support. For three days, discussions centered around how individuals unfamiliar with legal resources might best be helped.

Led by Margaret Hagan, director of the Legal Design Lab at the Stanford Law School, this diverse group of providers, former clients and potential clients took a people-first approach to strategizing how to reach the citizens facing the biggest daily challenges. Conversations covered services desired by clients, the timing of service delivery and the location of where services could be rendered to create the greatest return for underserved populations.

Currently dubbed the Escambia Project, the goal of these meetings was to seek input on a pilot that uses technology, community lawyering concepts and traditional service delivery to ease access to lawyers so that legal assistance can contribute more fully to local solutions. With studies showing that legal services programs are only able to meet about 20 percent of the legal needs of eligible, low-income individuals, the goal of this project is to develop a delivery system that accelerates access to lawyers and improves the experience for both the client and the pro bono (free) attorneys working to help underserved populations.

Following the 2016 tornadoes in Century, Legal Services of North Florida (LSNF), with the support of the United Way and the town of Century, started a weekly legal clinic to help residents obtain clear title to their homes so that repair work could be completed. LSNF is still conducting weekly visits and continues to see new clients. Representatives of LSNF speculate that a lack of trust or knowledge may have prevented citizens from accessing the legal resources. Removing the distance barrier and establishing relationships in this rural community has created the trust needed to resolve legal problems. LSNF has since started a similar clinic in Cantonment.

Using lessons learned from these and legal clinics like the VA Stand Down, U-Count Services Day and Law Week Clinics, LSNF has embraced the opportunity to explore models of service delivery that rely largely on private attorneys who meet with clients for free. LSNF thinks a natural progression from these clinics is to use technology to embed lawyers into the community where the need exists.

While the project discussions centered on legal access and how to best help local citizens, it was clear that integrating access to other providers of human and government services was key to long-term problem solving. Versatility in collaborative work and reporting are keys to reducing the silos to ensure the problems are solved without duplicating services.

The PNJ recently published an editorial written by a prominent local attorney, Alan Bookman. In the editorial, Bookman stressed the importance of this work. With legal services programs generating a $7 return for every dollar invested in them, we need to ensure programs and services are accessible and that the impact is expanded to the full benefit of the community. Through innovation generated by collaborations like the Escambia Project, we hope to exponentially increase the benefits that can be generated through efficiencies and ease of access.

In the three examples of dilemmas posed at the start of this column, the problem can be solved through a civil legal solution. Challenging the improper debt collection would prevent an unnecessary reduction in income and improve credit. Filing a bankruptcy and entering into a repayment plan for the vehicle prevents a loss of employment. Enforcing the landlord tenant laws to require the landlord to keep the property habitable would help the family stay healthy. All three scenarios have solutions that strengthen the moral and economic fiber of our community.

In the next steps for the Escambia Project, building and implementation teams will develop the resources and programming needed to improve desperately needed access to legal services. If you believe you have a skill set to offer to the project, reach out to andrea@unitedwayescambia.org and your offer of support will be forwarded along with your contact information to the design and build teams. With your help, we hope to host a kickoff to celebrate the launch of the project in early fall.

Andrea Krieger is president and CEO of United Way of Escambia County.

Andrea Krieger