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.

The following table shows the range of matters by type, recorded by the Rutgers University Office of Student Legal Services.

 

Case Type

Total

%

Case Type

Total

%

Landlord/Tenant

359

42.69

Insurance Law

10

1.19

Possession of CDS

52

6.18

Intellectual Property Law

10

1.19

Municipal Violations

40

4.76

Personal Injury

9

1.07

Motor Vehicle Violations

39

4.64

Domestic Violence Defendant

7

0.83

Criminal – Mis/DP

36

4.28

Collection/Debt Issues

6

0.71

Alcohol Violation

33

3.92

Domestic Violence Victim

6

0.71

Labor & Employment

28

3.33

Harassment – Defendant

6

0.71

Business

27

3.21

Criminal – Felony

5

0.59

Consumer

24

2.85

General Civil Litigation

5

0.59

Family Law

21

2.50

Privacy

5

0.59

Crime Victim’s Rights

14

1.66

Tax

4

0.48

Expungement

14

1.66

Trust & Estates

4

0.48

Civil Rights

13

1.55

Malpractice

3

0.36

University Disputes

13

1.55

Bankruptcy

1

0.12

Contract

12

1.43

Health

1

0.12

Administrative Law

11

1.31

Libel & Slander

1

0.12

Harassment – Victim

11

1.31

Technology & Cyberlaw

1

0.12

Immigration

10

1.19

 

 

 

 

 

 

Total

 

841

 

Figure 1. Data of 841 students recorded in conjunction with Protocol E13-246, IRB Approved November 21, 2012

A brief description of Rutgers is useful here to understand the meaning and context of some important statistics. Rutgers has three main geographical locations. The New Brunswick campus has the largest undergraduate population (33,000) and graduate/professional population (9,000). New Brunswick has one of the largest resident-life populations in the country. Slightly over 16,000 students live in university housing. This means that 26,000 New Brunswick students live off campus residentially or commute from home. Twenty-six miles to the north is the Newark campus with a combined 14,000 students and, according to U.S. News & World Report, the most ethnically diverse campus in America for the 2012–13 academic year. Camden is located 55 miles to the south of New Brunswick and has about 6,300 undergraduate and graduate/professional students combined. The fourth Rutgers unit is the Biological and Health Sciences Campus, which has multiple geographical locations and includes the medical school and the school of pharmacy.

At Rutgers, 28 percent of the student population comes from families identified as “low-income.” About 20 percent of Rutgers full-time-equivalent students are over the age of 24—equating to just about 13,000 students who are beyond the traditional age for college students, which is 18 to 24. Across the country, adult learners make up a considerable proportion of college students. In a 2012 report from the National Student Clearinghouse, 38 percent of all college students are over 25. There are over 1,500 students at Rutgers who are “military-affiliated.” In short, Rutgers University is a community of 65,000 adults with their attendant legal issues. Attorneys who work for, or assist, SLS must be cognizant of the far-reaching and long-range implications that a legal matter can have on the life and livelihood of their respective clients.

An Example of Understanding: Special Populations
At Rutgers SLS, we categorize student populations as “special” if status within that category is affected, to some degree, by laws or regulations that apply specifically to that category. Often, students within one of these categories represent a disproportionate percentage of our clientele. International students represent one of our largest “special populations.” At Rutgers, there are nearly 5,000 international students, which equates to about 8.5 percent of all students enrolled for the fall 2012 academic term. Attorneys who represent students need to be aware of some of the direct and ancillary aspects of assisting international students by virtue of their status.

Primarily, this population lacks familiarity with the laws and legal system of the United States. International students often do not understand the nuances of legal language and the intricacies of the judicial system, resulting in students missing court appearances to attend class. For example, motor-vehicle laws are often misunderstood, resulting in common missteps such as buying cars for cash and then neglecting to purchase collision insurance or driving on a learner’s permit without supervision. The imposition of fines and the loss of license are serious enough, but these matters, as well as charges such as simple possession of marijuana, underage drinking, or possession of alcohol in a public place can cause students to lose their scholarships, their student visas, or both. To be on the safe side, students are advised not to travel internationally until their matter is resolved because pending charges can result in a refusal by border patrol when they attempt to leave or reenter a country during international travel.

Similarly, students on Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship face severe consequences as a result of being charged under what might not ultimately amount to criminal charges. While all students on federal scholarships are at risk of losing those scholarships, such charges have further implications for ROTC students who may also lose their commission, depending on the exact nature of the charge. Attorneys representing either ROTC or international students often have to forgo an otherwise acceptable plea offer because a plea could seriously jeopardize their clients’ ability to pursue their degree at school and advance in their careers.

Other special populations include students with disabilities, who have the advantages of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Current data from the National Center for Education Statistics estimate that about 11 percent of undergraduates identify as having a disability. With that trend, however, is a population that has heretofore been largely denied access to the college experience, and wide-based support is necessary to assist their efforts. A single legal issue can seriously inhibit a student whose continued success is already challenged.

All students face the reality of today’s job, graduate-school, medical-school, and law-school applications, as well as background checks associated with career advancement. Every effort is made by SLS and its supporting programs to reduce or eliminate the impact of a legal matter, no matter how “small an issue,” because a violation or discharge will most likely show up on background checks and must be disclosed anyway on most of today’s job and school applications.

An Example of Need: Landlord/Tenant Wars
SLS at Rutgers deals with a significant number of landlord/tenant matters or tenant versus tenant matters—most cases often involving aspects of both. At stake are thousands of dollars tied up in security deposits; utility bills that have gone unpaid; municipal-ordinance fines; and damage caused to property by tenants, their predecessors, or their guests. Students are often unable to collect deposits in time to put a new deposit down for the next school year and many times walk away from thousands of dollars because they don’t understand the legal process. While tenant laws are generally favorable in New Jersey, students often don’t know where to turn for help. Problems are compounded by mid-semester evictions, roommates leaving school, and non-students moving into apartments without the consent of the other roommates. International students—a “special population”—often get their apartments from Internet sites not realizing that the locations are miles away from campus and are not zoned for apartment living. SLS attorneys are an integral part of ensuring that students have continued access to housing.

An Example of Collaboration: SLS as a Portal to Mental-Health Services
An important development noticed by SLS at Rutgers, and the subject of IRB-approved research by this writer and Rutgers SLS paralegal Maria Martino, is the significant percentage of students who are referred directly to mental-health services by SLS (D. Heilman & M. Martino, 2014 pending). SLS at Rutgers noticed that it was making direct referrals to Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS), Alcohol and Other Drugs Assistance Program (ADAP), or Violence Prevention and Victims Assistance (VPVA) for counseling. A preliminary analysis of the data from the 841 cases opened by Rutgers SLS between September 2010 and October 2012 revealed that slightly more than 18 percent of all SLS clients warranted a referral to one or more of these three entities for counseling. In addition, of the students our office identified as needing counseling, less than 4 percent self-initiated appointments, meaning that 96 percent of students warranting a referral did not reach out individually to the counseling resource for assistance prior to being identified by our office. Our experience also revealed that it does not matter what the outside’s view may be of the legal issue in question, but rather the internal view of the student that needs to be recognized. Sometimes, getting a student to counseling may be the single most important thing that an SLS attorney can do. Research indicates that about 10 percent of college students independently seek out counseling of some form at universities. However, a multi-campus survey, conducted by Daniel Eisenberg, Justin Hunt, Nicole Speer, and Kara Zivin, revealed that 32 percent of students showed signs of having a mental illness; however, a little more than a third of those students actually sought assistance. “Mental Health Service Utilization among College Students in the United States,” 199 J. Nervous & Mental Disease 301–8 (2011).

This research highlights the types of referrals that SLS attorneys need to make and that they must view it as part of the job. Dealing with a legal issue may be just a piece of the overall puzzle. SLS attorneys are often the first to hear about the various elements of a student’s situation and recognize the need for interdepartmental assistance.

Dealing with 65,000: The Approved Referral Attorney Program
To deal with 65,000 potential clients, Rutgers immediately developed a formal relationship with the Middlesex County Bar Association (MCBA). Located in New Brunswick, the MCBA already had a state-licensed, ABA-certificated referral program in place for reduced-income individuals. Rutgers and the MCBA created a “Rutgers list” for interested attorneys who would represent Rutgers students for the same reduced fees, and who would be willing to take a two-credit CLE course given by Rutgers SLS and sponsored by the MCBA. To date, over 100 attorneys from New Jersey have taken the course entitled “How to Represent College Students.”

As a consequence, Rutgers students have access to attorneys who can assist them directly with their issues at significantly reduced rates. A student can get the assistance of an experienced criminal attorney in municipal court for a fee not much greater than the application fee for a public defender. Students can now afford to have leases reviewed, traffic violations managed, and felony offenses dealt with professionally. From its inception in September 2010 through June 2013, Rutgers SLS has referred 746 cases through this program.

Even the most robust programs, such as those at the University of Minnesota, the University of Michigan, and Ohio State University, need the support of local attorneys. A real plus for universities with SLS programs has been the development of these natural “town-gown” relationships currently in demand by colleges nationwide where both school and civic leaders probe for ways to make the combined school and municipal communities a viable one.

And, as the demographic profile of the typical college student continues to evolve in the twenty-first century, colleges need to take note of the integral part that SLS programs play in student success. With their involvement in pre-law advising, law-school clinical opportunities, and educational outreach programs, SLS programs are providing access to legal assistance and support from the legal profession in ways that did not exist just one generation ago.

Keywords: litigation, access to justice, student legal services, SLS, special population, international student, mental health

Donald C. Heilman is the director of the Office of Student Legal Services at Rutgers University.


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