Grantee Spotlight:
The Big Work of a Small State: South Dakota's Access To Justice, Inc.

Access to Justice (A2J) is a statewide program incorporated by the State Bar of South Dakota in 2005 to:

(1) Provide for the coordination of pro bono lawyers to assist poor citizens with their legal problems, thus providing access to justice for those lacking financial resources to hire a lawyer;

(2) Help ensure compliance with lawyers' ethical obligation to never reject the cause of the defenseless or oppressed;

(3) Improve the delivery of legal services to all citizens of the state;

(4) Improve delivery of legal services to the poor; and

(5) Provide centralized information, direction and assistance for access to justice programs in the State of South Dakota.
A2J's mission is to promote equal access to justice for all citizens of the State of South Dakota.

Based in Rapid City, South Dakota, A2J is able to provide services statewide with a limited staff and a pool of dedicated lawyers participating in A2J programs across the state. Cheryl Hanna, Director, leads a dedicated team of two part–time paralegals and a part–time receptionist.

History and Funding

2013 Bar Convention
(L) Brittney Bausch (A2J Paralegal)
and (R) Ciara Coleman (EJW SummerCorps Intern)
Photo Credit: Access to Justice, Inc.

Recognizing the increasing need for civil legal services for the poor and seeing funding dwindling for legal services programs, the State Bar of South Dakota worked hard for many years to help close the justice gap in South Dakota and increase funding for legal services programs. The South Dakota A2J program was formed by the State Bar to supplement legal services provided by South Dakota's two legal aid programs, Dakota Plains Legal Services and East River Legal Services. Funding for the Access to Justice program has been provided by the State Bar of South Dakota and the South Dakota Bar Foundation with IOLTA monies. Other small grants and contracts have helped sustain the program over the past 8 years.

Current A2J programs/projects

A2J staff currently administers seven programs throughout South Dakota. These programs have been effective due, in large part, to the number of pro bono attorneys that are involved. While South Dakota does not currently mandate pro bono service or reporting of pro bono activity, approximately 22% of the active, in–state, non–governmental bar participate in one or more of the A2J programs detailed below.

Pro Bono Program: The state pro bono program supplements the work of Dakota Plains Legal Services and East River Legal Services for clients whose income is at or below 125% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. For clients who are disabled or 60 years of age and older, A2J income requirements are extended to 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Volunteer attorneys can take cases in any area of law they choose.

Modest Means Program: In an effort to improve the availability of services to those of moderate income and to supplement services provided by the state pro bono program to the indigent, the State Bar of South Dakota and A2J have developed a modest means (reduced fee) program. Clients whose income does not exceed 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines are eligible to participate in this project at their expense. The maximum retainer a lawyer may charge for a modest means case is $650 and the maximum hourly rate for services is currently $84. Participating attorneys are referred cases in any area of law they choose, but they must commit to take at least one pro bono case a year.

Legal Assistance to Victims Project: A2J currently provides statewide intake and referral services for cases in which domestic violence, sexual assault or stalking are involved. Lawyers who have completed approved training and/or have the requisite experience may participate in the project and be paid a reduced fee of $50 per hour to help victims.

Wills/Advance Directives Project: Pro bono lawyers participating in this project help senior (persons 60 years of age and older) and/or disabled clients who live at or below 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Attorneys assist with the preparation of simple wills and advance directives. Referrals are made to volunteer lawyers in the client's community for preparation of the documents/instruments needed.

Mentoring and Supervision of USD Law Students: Experienced lawyers may volunteer to mentor other pro bono lawyers outside of their firms who may not be familiar with a particular area of law in which the mentor has expertise. Volunteer lawyers may also supervise and/or mentor law students as they work on a variety of different projects.

Community Education: Attorneys may elect to provide community education in their particular area of expertise, via newspaper articles, community presentations, radio PSA's, or development of material for the HelpSouthDakota.com legal services website.

Support, Collaboration and Coordination to Maximize Limited Resources

Director, Cheryl Hanna, credits the rapid growth of the A2J program to the support it receives from the State Bar of South Dakota, the South Dakota Bar Foundation, the South Dakota Unified Judicial System, the South Dakota Commission on Equal Access to the Courts and the two legal services programs in the state (East River Legal Services and Dakota Plains Legal Services.) Collaboration and partnerships with these and other stakeholders have helped build the A2J program, maximize its resources, and provide for the coordination of services.

This collaboration is seen through the work of East River Legal Services (ERLS), a one office program located in Sioux Falls. Although their service area extends throughout most of eastern South Dakota, inadequate funding prevents them from maintaining branch offices in any of the rural areas they serve. To address the need and better reach the underserved, ERLS established a judicare program to maximize their limited funding; in addition, A2J supplements services in those areas through the state pro bono and modest means programs.

Similarly, Dakota Plains Legal Services (DPLS) has branch offices on six of the nine Indian reservations in South Dakota; each reservation has its own laws and court systems. With DPLS resources going to these tribal territories, the A2J program provides supplemental legal services to clients in state court. At the same time, where A2J programs are unable to provide services, DPLS works to fill the gap.

For example, in the western part of the state, DPLS is not able to provide extended services to clients in family law cases. An A2J program refers those cases to lawyers participating in the state pro bono and modest means programs. In that same area, A2J has no bankruptcy lawyers. To meet that need, DPLS utilizes a portion of its Private Attorney Involvement money to pay participating private lawyers a reduced fee to handle bankruptcies needed by clients in that area.

This collaboration shows that every attempt is made to fill gaps in legal services. In one specific example, multiple programs/entities worked together when the only surviving parent of three adult mentally challenged siblings died leaving the adult children uncared for with no other relatives to take them. A local pro bono attorney, a human services program, a bank trust officer and a realtor all worked together to have a guardian appointed, find a suitable residence for the siblings, probate the parents' estates, dispose of property and set up a trust for the adult children.

Conclusion

One of the advantages of a small state is knowing all the stakeholders and developing close working relationships. In a rural state, it is important to bring all the stakeholders to the table to effectively address the justice gap and, in South Dakota, we are fortunate to have a bar and judiciary who work hard to do just that.

Cheryl Hanna is Director of South Dakota's state Access to Justice program. Prior to being hired by the State Bar of South Dakota to help build the Access to Justice program, she served 16 years at Dakota Plains Legal Services as an administrator and as Co–Director. Cheryl also serves on the South Dakota Unified Judicial System's Legal Services Task Force and the South Dakota Commission on Equal Access to Our Courts.