May 19, 2016 Dialogue

Grantee Spotlight | Client Empowerment through Access to Justice

The Nebraska Experience

By Milo Mumgaard and Annette Farnan

Introduction

Getting a good job and supporting a family can be hard. It is even harder if you are saddled with legal barriers holding you back. Too many people face these problems needing legal help, but lack the financial resources to hire an attorney. These people can then find themselves stuck in the cyclical rut of poverty-related legal issues, preventing them from getting back on their feet. However, with a little help they can in fact break through these debilitating barriers, improving their quality and outlook on life, and enhancing their ability to obtain a good job and become financially independent.

 

Walk-in Legal Help for Pro Se Litigants in Omaha and Lincoln

Rose, with the help of Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Access to Justice Self Help Center (A2J), did just that. Rose is a community college graduate with an associate’s degree. She also has a mental illness, substance abuse problem, and criminal history. Rose was doing everything she could to get her life on track. She had overcome her substance abuse problems, was managing her mental illness, and had received an education so she could rejoin the workforce. Sadly, with her criminal background she faced hurdle after hurdle in her job search. Rose was at the end of her rope and had nowhere else to turn when she discovered Legal Aid’s A2J Center.

Legal Aid of Nebraska has two “brick and mortar” A2J Centers, based in Nebraska’s population centers of Omaha and Lincoln. These walk-in centers provide on-demand legal advice and guidance to help pro se litigants navigate their way through a complex legal system. People walk into the Center with no right to counsel in their civil matter and no knowledge of how to fix their legal issues. They walk out understanding legal remedies with tools in hand, ready to seek real and concrete solutions for themselves at the courthouse.

 

The Pro Se Problem

The Nebraska Supreme Court estimates that in at least 50 percent of civil cases, one or both parties appear with no attorney. These pro se litigants are ill-prepared for court. Often times their pleadings are not complete. Because they are not attorneys and have not been advised by one, they fail to understand their legal options. The case languishes, clogging the courts; worse yet, no legal remedy is obtained because they do not understand how to advance their case through the justice system.

Recognizing the need, Legal Aid of Nebraska opened its first A2J Center in Omaha in 2012. The A2J concept was new to Nebraska but was readily embraced by the bench, bar, and clients. With success in Omaha, this service delivery model was replicated in Legal Aid’s Lincoln office in 2013. In 2015, the A2J Center in Omaha provided services to over 1,500 clients; in Lincoln, the A2J Center served over 900.

 

Types of Services Provided

The help clients receive at both centers is broad, but targeted to common legal needs. Computers are available to complete forms and free printing is provided. Clinics are held where court forms are filled out. Clients are taught how to present their case to the court and what steps are necessary for the case to progress from the initial filing to the final Order. Most importantly, walk-in clients are given the opportunity to meet one-on-one with a Legal Aid staff attorney to discuss their problem, identify the potential legal remedies, and helped to pursue those remedies.

In Rose’s case, when she walked into Legal Aid of Nebraska’s Lincoln A2J Center she needed a job, but her legal problems lay in her path. The Lincoln A2J Center Staff Attorney, Lea Wroblewski, met with Rose, explained her legal options, and gave her computer access, which enabled Rose to fill out a motion to set aside a misdemeanor conviction. She successfully obtained an Order and was then able to find a job. Still, her other legal problems remained in the way of her success. The debt she amassed while unemployed and sick was overwhelming and she needed help sorting out what to do next. Again, she came into the A2J Center and spoke with Wroblewski. After reviewing her situation, Wroblewski recommended she file a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which she did herself through a bankruptcy clinic at the A2J Center.

 

A Fresh Start for Rose

Rose is now sober, employed, and receiving a fresh financial start from the bankruptcy. She is able to support herself and reports that the changes in her life have helped her repair damaged family relationships, break the cycle of poverty, and—most importantly—improve her outlook on life. This is a result that A2J Center staff often hears from the people they help. When they come into the A2J Center, they are often beaten down, in crisis, and feeling that no one can or will help them. Instead, these Nebraskans become empowered and ready to tackle these often paralyzing life problems simply by obtaining information about the legal issue and process confronting them, and learning about helpful steps to take.

“Rose literally told me that A2J changed her life,” says Wroblewski. “The hours I spent helping her were relatively few—certainly much fewer than if I had represented her directly—but the outcome for her was the same, if not better.”

 

The Rural Model:  “Virtual” Self-Help Centers

While these “brick and mortar” Access to Justice Centers work great for urban areas, this proves to be an entirely different matter in rural areas. Nebraska is one of the most rural states in the nation, with many counties home to fewer than five attorneys. Ideally, Legal Aid of Nebraska could station A2J Centers throughout the state, but with limited resources and vast rural areas, developing easy-to-access centers remains a challenge.

Legal Aid of Nebraska is meeting this challenge through the creative development of Rural Access to Justice (RA2J). RA2J is a “virtual” self-help center, using online technology, free space in courthouses, and volunteer lawyers to provide similar assistance in sparsely populated counties. RA2J involves Legal Aid working in collaboration with the courts, the Nebraska State Bar Association, pro bono attorneys, and the public libraries to increase access to justice for low-income rural Nebraskans. The goal of RA2J, through its virtual presence across Nebraska, is the same as in Nebraska’s urban centers:  ensuring that self-represented, low-income individuals residing in rural areas are connected to legal information and services, helping them to meaningfully understand the law and what they can do to help themselves.

“Rural A2J will allow us to provide the most vulnerable and underserved populations in Nebraska with tools to handle basic legal issues,” said Muirne Heaney, Rural Access to Justice Managing Attorney. “Rural A2J doubles—if not triples—the number of people we can reach with our existing resources, and the number of people who gain both a sense of empowerment and relief.”

 

Conclusion

A2J and Rural A2J have opened doors by providing underprivileged Nebraskans the critical ability to navigate often complicated civil legal matters. Because of these efforts by Legal Aid of Nebraska, thousands of Nebraskans like Rose are afforded the opportunity to challenge and break through their poverty-related legal barriers. These Nebraskans are empowered to take on even more of their life challenges, resulting in stronger families and communities across the state.

Milo Mumgaard

Executive Director, Legal Aid of Nebraska

Milo Mumgaard is the Executive Director of Legal Aid of Nebraska and has over 25 years of experience as a legal services and public interest attorney

Annette Farnan

Deputy Director, Legal Aid of Nebraska

Annette Farnan has been employed with Legal Aid of Nebraska for nearly 20 years and currently serves as its Deputy Director.