Justice buses are back on the road in Ohio, making their way across the Buckeye State to:

  1. learn about the legal needs of local communities and then,
  2. hold local-specific legal clinics to address those needs.

This is a much-needed approach. Rather than guessing a community’s needs, this approach involves doing a bit of homework first and a lot of listening. These Justice Buses offer a way to provide civil legal aid and pro bono services in areas without readily available resources. As experiences are shared and models perfected, I expect we’ll see more of these buses visiting far-flung regions across the country, like they are in Minnesota.

When I think of ways to bring legal services to the public, Justice Buses make a lot of sense. So does putting law offices for basic legal services in malls and even the local Walmart.

Salt Lake City Housing Stability Division

There is nowhere making in-person legal services more readily accessible than Utah. Even before the pandemic forced courts and legal professionals to be less rigid and more creative in how services are provided, Utah was experimenting with alternative legal services models.

So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Salt Lake City has been holding Kayak Court to:

  1. deliver legal services to hard-to-reach homeless encampments and also,
  2. clean up the Jordan River.

These floating legal clinics aim to help homeless individuals identify and resolve barriers to permanent housing and jobs. Convictions for old and minor offenses and outstanding warrants for things like failure to appear or trespassing can stop a job or apartment application in its tracks. These traveling courtrooms offer legal counseling and the opportunity to resolve minor matters.

In the example reported by the Salt Lake Tribune, a public defender paddled up to a homeless camp and asked a woman if she had any outstanding cases that needed to be resolved. The woman said yes, counseled while sitting on an overturned milk crate. And then a local judge paddled up to hand down sentencing.

“[W]e can try and meet people where they’re at and get them through the system and get them the help they need.”

Michelle Hoon

Salt Lake City has been dispatching these roving courts, by bus, setting up tent courts at homeless encampments, and by bicycle. The flotilla court was the brainchild of Salt Lake City Justice Court Judge Jeanne Robison, who thought of the idea while kayaking down the river with a friend who provides homeless outreach.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported:

The out-of-the-box idea came to Robison earlier this year as she kayaked down the river with a friend who does homeless outreach. The friend joked that it was too bad the judge couldn’t just take care of people’s cases while on the river.

“And then we got to thinking about it,” Robison said. “We knew there were encampments on the river. We were already doing homeless outreach. And then we came up with this crazy idea.”

Again I ask, crazy idea or crazy good idea?

In addition to legal matters, the teams include those who hand out hygiene supplies and a clean-up crew to remove trash in and along the river.

I cannot love Salt Lake City enough for finding novel ways to make courts more accessible and refusing to give in to backlogs.

“We can let our court dockets back up like crazy with people who are unable to make it to court, or we can try and meet people where they’re at and get them through the system and get them the help they need,” Michelle Hoon, project and policy manager with Salt Lake City’s Homeless Engagement and Response Team, is quoted saying.

The Kayak Court is a collaborative effort. In addition to the Salt Lake City Justice Court and Housing Stability Division, partners include Volunteers of America, the Jordan River Commission, GREENbike, plus prosecutors and defense attorneys who volunteered their time outside of regular work hours.

Sources cited:

Ohio Justice Bus to visit Newport Library in Youngstown to assess community’s legal needs,” Mahoning Matters, Nov. 18, 2021

“‘Justice Bus’ comes to Valley,” WYTV ABC 33, Nov. 17, 2021

Justice Bus delivering legal services to people in need across state of Minnesota,” Alberta Lea Tribune, Nov. 16, 2021

‘Kayak court’ brings the justice system to Salt Lake City’s homeless on the banks of the Jordan River,” Salt Lake Tribune, July 27, 2021