July 31, 2014 Articles

Student Legal Services: An Emerging Provider of Legal Aid on Campus

SLS programs are providing access to legal assistance and support from the legal profession in ways that did not exist just one generation ago.

By Donald C. Heilman

The devastating effect that even a “minor” legal issue can have on an individual’s academic progress makes it essential for both law professionals and academic leaders to recognize the absolute need for students to have access to low-cost/no-cost legal aid: providing assistance, advice, referrals, and representation. A single instance of this need going unattended can completely derail an individual’s academic and career progress—in some cases, irreversibly. One powerful and very important solution has been the development of Student Legal Services (SLS).

Student Legal Services have been around on college campuses since the 1960s, arising in response to the student-rights movement. James Kuder & Margaret Walker, “Legal Services for Students,” 21 NASPA J. 21–26 (1983). Administrators soon saw that college students could benefit from a much wider scope of legal support, and SLS quickly filled that niche. Since then, the need for legal assistance on campus has continued to expand and diversify.

A key factor driving the need for expanded legal services on campus is the dramatically changing demographic picture of today’s college student. One generation ago, college campuses were much more homogenized in age group and socioeconomic status. Today’s college campuses are significantly more diverse by every measurement, including age, gender, income bracket, race, ethnicity, country of origin, and marital status. In addition, factors such as job status, family status, military-veteran status, mental-health status, and the existence of learning disabilities drive the need for increased access to legal assistance. As a result of these changes, SLS is addressing issues as varied as the students that matriculate at today’s colleges and universities. Today, offices of Student Legal Services handle a wide range of legal matters. SLS offices provide legal advice relating to issues such as marital disputes and child custody; employment and business contracts; consumer-protection issues; traffic violations; and landlord/tenant cases. According to Mark Karon, director and attorney for Student Legal Services at the University of Minnesota, currently there are about  350 to 400 colleges or universities nationwide that have some kind of legal-services program. Those schools range in size from 5,000 students on up to universities such as Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, with 65,000 students, and where this writer serves as director of the Office of Student Legal Services. This article will outline the wide-ranging services of SLS and its ability to play a major role in student development on today’s college campuses through a brief examination of Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, Office of Student Legal Services.

At Rutgers, student legal issues include criminal and civil litigation, administrative hearings, and mediations. All Rutgers students—regardless of campus, graduate or undergraduate status, full-time or part-time status—are eligible for services. Common issues addressed by the SLS office include landlord/tenant matters, business start-ups, immigration concerns, and intellectual property issues, as well as matrimonial issues such as custody and child support. For many students, SLS provides them with their first-ever contact with an attorney. And, as this writer’s research is proving, SLS offices serve as an important gateway to mental-health services that are often provided by college campuses as well.

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