In my many years covering legal services and access-to-justice issues, the perspective shared by LSC President Emeritus James Sandman continues to resonate. He emphasizes again and again how important it is for legal services providers to collaborate with the communities they aim to reach.

This co-location, almost embedded approach, is sure to draw my attention, which is why it was an absolute pleasure to be able to speak with three innovative legal professionals making creative connections with some of the most underserved populations in their regions.

In this episode of Talk Justice, “Holding Court Outside the Courtroom,” I spoke with:

Dori Rapaport, Executive Director at Legal Aid Services of Northeastern Minnesota, who is part of an effort to roll out justice buses and kiosks across Minnesota.

David Estep, Supervising Attorney at Legal Aid of West Virginia, whose team is participating in social services outreach fairs and networking with organizations with similar missions to support and serve vulnerable populations.

Honorable Jeanne M. Robison, Salt Lake City Justice Court Judge, who orchestrated a unique kayak court to reach homeless encampments, an incredibly collaborative effort among government, judicial and social services organizations.

What I appreciated about this conversation was how these efforts are aimed at addressing issues that go well beyond an immediate legal need. A legal issue is often only one part of a problem or a hurdle to achieving other essential needs, such as housing or benefits. As an example, someone facing homelessness may be barred from job opportunities or housing options because of minor infractions such as trespassing or public intoxication.

I also was heartened to learn about the trauma-informed approach that the kayak courts are taking.

“We’re cognizant that we’re going to where people are living—we let the trauma-informed social workers or outreach workers go first and say, ‘is there anything that we can help you with?’ And also, ‘the court is here if you have cases you want to have addressed.’ And if they say no, everybody moves on by and doesn’t engage,” Judge Robison said.  

“But if the person does have criminal cases that they want to address, then the court is there to address them, and that removes barriers. If we catch people at the right time when they are actively working to move towards being self-sufficient, then removing warrants and adjudicating cases can remove barriers from them accepting housing vouchers, accepting employment, having benefits started or reinstated.” 

There are also important legal tech components to these efforts. The kayak courts need full transcription and WebEx to function on the river.

The Justice Buses and kiosks are essentially legal services hot spots for some of the most rural areas in the state. Thanks to an ambitious CARES Act funding request, the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition received $3.5 million to create a technological infrastructure including 250 legal kiosks and four justice buses, which serve as mobile legal aid offices

“We had to bring technology and internet access and equipment for people to be able to meaningfully engage in court, and we had to give them an opportunity to apply for legal services,” Rapaport said. She also noted how gratifying it is to be able to staff court calendars more completely now that they are able to remote in rather than travel for hours/days for in-person proceedings.

Another result of these efforts is media and community exposure. Rapaport surprised me with intel that the justice buses are becoming popular parade fixtures. This level of attention, from local news sources and community efforts, is invaluable to educate those who may be in need of services and those who have the political power to support these efforts.

Said Estep: “It allows [people in need] to have exposure to us to let them know that we are here and that we can help them with their issues. But, it also allows us to have exposure with the social services organizations to let them know that we’re on the same team and we all want the same thing, and it helps us work together better.”