Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

Standard 4.5 on Access to Services

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A provider should operate in ways that facilitate access to its services.


General considerations

A legal aid provider has a responsibility to operate in ways that facilitate access to its services for all members of the low income population it serves. Many aspects of its operation affect the accessibility of its services: the provider's over-all delivery strategy, including areas of specialization and practice concentration; office location; utilization of technology; intake hours; design of facilities; outreach; and the involvement of contract and volunteer attorneys.

A provider also needs to be attentive to the access needs of specific populations for which there are particular barriers to seeking and to utilizing services that are offered. Some persons encounter geographic barriers, particularly in sparsely populated rural areas or in urban and rural areas that lack public transportation. Others, such as persons with disabilities, the institutionalized and the elderly, encounter physical and other barriers. Migrant farm-workers housed in farm labor camps may not be able to reach or easily communicate with legal aid providers and legal aid providers may not easily access labor camps. Other low income employed persons may not be able to leave employment to seek or follow up on service. Some low income persons may come from cultures that frown on seeking the assistance of a lawyer, or seeking any free services, while others may be impeded by limited proficiency in English.

Factors affecting access

Delivery strategy. The overall delivery structure and priorities of a provider will impact on its accessibility to clients and the access issues it encounters. Some providers are organized entirely to offer intake and advice by phone and issues such as office location would not be relevant to them, whereas access issues associated with use of the telephone and other communication’s technology would. Small providers may have only one office and limited choices regarding multiple points of contact. Providers that specialize in work such as appeals or legislative and administrative advocacy and rely on referrals from other providers have different access issues than a large full service provider. Similarly, the limits a provider places on the legal issues on which it will offer assistance limits access for individuals with legal problems that fall outside of those areas, particularly if there is no alternative to which the applicant can be referred.

Each provider should be aware of and address the particular access issues that it encounters given its delivery system and should be an active participant in a delivery system that assures that all persons in need of assistance have access to services.

Office Location. Where a provider locates its service offices will affect how people utilize its services. Offices where clients are seen should be in locations that are accessible to the low income population. Office locations will be determined in the context of the overall delivery structure of the provider. How resources are deployed - particularly in multi-county service areas, in large rural areas and in large cities - will significantly affect office location decisions. A decision, for example, to establish large offices to facilitate specialization may reduce the opportunity to locate offices in or near the various low income communities served by the provider. Mechanisms, such as centralized telephone intake, on-line services and outreach offices will reduce the need for physical access and may diminish the importance of location of main offices. There will be times, however, when applicants or clients will need to come to the office and location will matter.

In locating its service offices, a legal aid provider should be sensitive to many countervailing factors. There may be many benefits to locating in close proximity to courthouses and other state and local institutions before which the provider's practitioners regularly represents clients. On the other hand, it may be significantly more convenient for potential clients for the provider to be located in or near low income neighborhoods. To the degree possible, inexpensive public transportation and free or low-cost parking should be available. The provider should be open to all low income populations in its service area and should avoid locating its offices in a way that identifies it with a particular segment of the low income population, if it would deter persons from other cultural groups from seeking service.

Some providers will have institutional needs that determine where they locate their service offices. For law school clinics, for example, proximity to the law school may be a significant factor. A legal aid provider serving a specific population, such as persons with HIV/AIDS, might locate in a facility offering other services to the same population.

There are obvious financial considerations to be weighed as well. These include rental or ownership costs of particular sites. Supportive local governments, bar associations, or service organizations may be willing to donate free or reduced-cost space to a provider. Cost advantages of such arrangements should be carefully weighed against the potential disadvantages of identifying the provider with particular institutions.

Utilization of technology. Technology can have a significant impact on the access issues. Technologically based systems for intake, to offer legal information and other assistance can significantly increase the capacity of a provider to serve large numbers of low income persons. They can also directly overcome barriers to access that some encounter. Telephone intake, for example, can significantly increase access for isolated rural populations, as well as homebound and the elderly. It may be the only reasonable alternative for a person who cannot take time off from work to physically go to an office.

The provider needs to be sensitive to the fact that restricting intake to the telephone may create impediments for some and that telephone intake systems are not equally accessible to all. Some low income persons may have only limited access to a phone. Some rural people have a deeply ingrained preference for face to face contact and may balk at initial contact by telephone. Some persons have difficulty with complex, answering systems with branching options and will not persevere to get the help they need. Persons who do not speak English are likely to be weeded out of a telephone system that does not immediately offer interaction in their language.

In all cases, the provider's telephone system needs to be accessible. Automated systems should provide for quick access to a live operator for first time callers or to a voice-mail box for persons trying to reach a particular individual. They should accommodate persons who speak a language other than English. The provider should have the capacity to address the needs of the deaf and hearing impaired.

As technology continues to develop, it is likely that use of on-line access to services will increase. Such techniques can make services available to large numbers of persons, but they also create their own access questions. Some low income persons will not have access to a computer, or will not have the skills necessary to use one for on-line, self help service. Web-based assistance should be available in the frequently used written languages of the low income person served by the provider.

Access to technology for persons with a disability. Technology needs to be accessible to persons who have disabilities. Services that are only offered on the web should have appropriate adaptive technology to make the website usable by low vision and blind persons, including displaying graphic and visual information with text alternatives and using formats accessible to screen readers. Computer stations that are established by the provider to access its services should, if practicable, offer a means for interface with the computer which will work for persons who have problems with physical control and impaired mobility.

Intake and office hours. Intake and office hours should be established to accommodate the needs of the low income communities served by the provider. Clients who are employed may not be able to take time off during regular business hours. Caretakers of small children or persons with a disability may have little time when they can be absent from the home. Available public and private transportation may determine when some can come to an office. The hours set by staff and intake offices should accommodate such needs and to the degree possible, the provider should offer intake and access to services outside of normal working hours and at lunch time.

Physical Facilities. Service offices should provide a professional atmosphere that reflects respect for clients. They should be clean, pleasant and physically comfortable. Offices should provide privacy for applicants and clients and easy access to personnel. There should be comfortable waiting space, with accommodations, if possible, for children who accompany clients to the office. The location of a staff office should be marked clearly with an easily readable sign. The sign identifying the office should be printed in major languages spoken by the low income communities the provider serves.

Elimination of physical barriers for persons who are disabled. A provider should be highly sensitive to the need to eliminate barriers that limit access for persons with disabilities. A provider should at a minimum comply with federal and state legal requirements regarding access to its services by persons with disabilities. The provider should recognize that many legal problems arise for individuals with a disability as a direct result of their condition or status. Lack of easy access to public and private institutions frequently exacerbates those problems. Failure by a provider to address its own access barriers may leave important legal issues unattended as the provider becomes another part of the problem persons with disabilities confront.

Buildings in which the provider is housed should offer wheel chair access and elevators if services are offered in multi-level facilities. Toilet facilities and parking should accommodate persons with disabilities. Offices in which clients meet practitioners should be accessible to persons in wheelchairs. The provider should accommodate persons who rely on service animals to assist them.

Outreach and Publicity. Legal aid providers should take affirmative steps to inform eligible persons of their services in a manner that encourages them to seek assistance. One of the goals of community legal education should be to publicize the nature of available legal aid and the steps an individual should take to obtain them.

Effective outreach to the elderly, the physically handicapped and the institutionalized requires more than information. Lack of mobility or physical access barriers may keep such persons from legal aid even when they are aware of it. Providers should establish outreach to groups and organizations that work with persons with disabilities, know how to handle their mobility problems, and can refer them to legal aid. The provider should consider bringing services to the institutionalized and others who cannot travel to the office, but are eligible for service.

Outreach should be tailored to address special access barriers encountered by some because of their culture or unique circumstances. The provider should reach out to community organizations in isolated cultural and linguistic groups to facilitate establishing a presence in those communities. Specialized delivery strategies should be directed to groups of clients such as migrant farm workers and Native Americans.

Involvement of other members of the bar. Involvement of volunteer and contract attorneys offers a valuable opportunity to provide service in areas that might otherwise be difficult to serve. In urban areas, offices of private attorneys may be located in neighborhoods that are convenient to clients. In rural areas, private attorneys may be available to serve communities where it is not economically feasible to maintain a staff office. Effective involvement of outside attorneys may increase the flexibility of a provider's service hours. Some providers, for instance, engage outside attorneys in advice clinics that operate in the evening or on Saturdays. If a client who has a disability is referred to an outside attorney, the provider should make certain that the attorney to whom the case is referred is fully able to accommodate the client's disability.