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Legally Speaking


Issue: December, 2005
Author: Adrian H. Molina

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Wyoming: The Equality State?

A Call for Increased Accessibility to the Legal System
Among the State’s Underserved Populations

The people of Wyoming pride themselves on the state’s motto – “The Equality State” – which was adopted by the state because of the rights Wyoming women have historically enjoyed. Wyoming women were the first in the nation to vote, serve on juries and hold public office. The question today is; have we as a state lived up to our challenging motto?

It is indisputable that notions such as fairness, justice, equality, and the right to the pursuit of happiness are deeply engrained in our national culture and state culture, and in our political discourse. Consider the second provision of Wyoming’s Constitution: “In their inherent right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, all members of the human race are equal.”

Because of the appeals made to such notions two centuries ago by the Protestant European males who founded this nation, and thereafter throughout the nation’s history by people of color, women, the indigent poor, immigrants, and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual & transgender (LGBT) community who have challenged America to live up to these ideals, we have become accustomed to the loose use of the terms “equality” and “justice.”

Quite often, we discuss equality and justice without considering the significance and the critical implications of these terms. Those of us in the legal community do it daily, as our working reality concerns the business of equality and justice, regardless of whether we take time to consider what that may actually mean with respect to our ethical duties and obligations as professionals.

From the onset, any discussion pertaining to equality begs the question: What is equality? In what context are we discussing equality? Are we talking about equality of outcome or equality of opportunity? Are we discussing political, economic, social, or cultural equality, or some other brand of equality that is not so frequently debated?

While this discussion could take multiple directions in consideration of whether Wyoming has in fact lived up to its motto, the scope of this article will be narrowed to considering accessibility to the state’s legal system among the state’s underserved populations, particularly the indigent, victims of domestic violence, and the state’s immigrant population. For if equality means “rights, treatment, quantity, or value equal to all others in a given group,” how can equality exist at all when individuals do not even have access to the system that promises it? In a society in which it is so expensive to seek out justice and equality, accessibility to the legal system should invariably be a starting point in our discussions on equality, regardless of whether we are speaking of equality of outcome, equality of opportunity, or any other issue relevant to the ideals we profess to uphold.

Let’s focus on the accessibility of Wyoming’s legal system because, as lawyers, judges, politicians, law students, and other professionals who influence the state’s legal system, we not only have the ability, but the duty, to work to increase access to the state’s legal system among those who are underserved.

The state of accessibility among Wyoming’s underserved populations

The American Bar Association asserts that “Today, despite the combined efforts of LSC-[Legal Services Corporation] funded programs, private attorneys and bar associations, more than 80 percent of the basic civil legal needs of the poor are not being met.” While the LSC received half the funding it did in 1980, the number of people living in poverty increased by 5.74% between 1990 to 2000, leaving 43 million Americans financially eligible for federally funded legal assistance based on income guidelines of 125% or below the federal poverty level.

Despite the small and spacious population of Wyoming, the demand for publicly funded legal assistance among Wyomingites is no different than that of the citizens of other states. In Wyoming, there are only two providers of civil legal aid to the poor: Wyoming Legal Services, Inc. (WLS) and the U.W. College of Law Legal Services Program (UWLSP), both having income guidelines of 125% or below the federal poverty level. About 75,000 Wyomingites meet this requirement.

Unfortunately, while many Wyomingites, particularly victims of domestic violence, are in need of family law-related legal services, the Wyoming branch of the federally funded LSC does not regularly provide legal representation for family law matters, including child representation or protection order hearings.

While there are limited resources available to the many Wyomingites who are eligible for legal services, there are greater concerns over the funding of these programs. Most of the funding for these programs comes from federal grants and/or funding from the state’s IOLTA program. Some of the funding for these programs, like the federal grant that supports the operations of the domestic violence component of UWLSP, is set to expire within the next year, leaving the future of the program in question. Unlike the overwhelming majority of other jurisdictions in the U.S., there is no state funding for legal services programs in the state of Wyoming.

In addition to the general need for increased access to legal services among the state’s indigent population, survivors of domestic violence and the state’s immigrant population are greatly in need of increased access to legal services. A recent study found that women in the poorest households experience seven times the abuse rate of the highest-income households. The isolation that women face in rural communities in Wyoming only compounds the problem. Despite the barriers these women face in obtaining legal services and the barriers the legal community faces in helping domestic violence survivors obtain protective orders, custody of their children, child support, and other public assistance, this study also found that access to legal services is one of the primary factors contributing to a 21% decrease nationally in the reported incidence of domestic violence between 1993 and 1998. In other words, extending access to legal services among survivors of domestic violence is a worthy investment.

Dona Playton, Assistant Director of the UW Domestic Violence Legal Assistance Project and the professor of the “Domestic Violence and the Law” course offered at UW’s law school, insists that “Providing comprehensive, holistic legal assistance to victims of domestic violence promotes self-sufficiency and, in turn, contributes towards other statewide economic goals.” When asked for three recommendations that would increase the quality of services to battered women in Wyoming, Mrs. Playton suggested: 1) Increased, publicly funded training opportunities for attorneys, law enforcement agents, judges, and other legal actors; 2) increased opportunities for women in the work force in an effort to close the gender gap between men and women in the state; and 3) the establishment of a statewide network to provide free or reduced fee legal assistance to victims of domestic violence.

The state’s immigrant population is also in need of increased access to legal services. Wyoming’s foreign-born population increased 47% during the 1990s. Between 1990 and 2000, Wyoming gained 3,558 immigrants, bringing the total number of foreign-born residents in the state to 11,000. Over 38% of Wyoming’s immigrant population has arrived in the state since 1990.

Many of these individuals, particularly Latino immigrants, do not speak English, and face cultural and language barriers with respect to obtaining quality legal services. Because the immigrant population is largely ignored and overlooked in general, few law firms or lawyers actually have the capacity to adequately address the legal needs of this population, usually because they don’t staff bilingual attorneys, nor have established relationships with individuals or organizations that can assist in translation and other basic services for which they lack access.

Setting party politics aside, it is pragmatic and practical to understand that the majority of the state’s immigrants are here to stay, and that more will come until our nation finds another way to fulfill the demand for cheap, often dangerous, and otherwise unwanted labor these immigrants provide. Integrating them into society, which includes extending to them access to the legal system, is not only in their interests, but in the best interests of our society as a whole.

Calling Wyoming’s legal actors to action: What we can do to extend accessibility to the legal system among Wyoming’s underserved populations

Following are recommendations for law firms and lawyers, judges, law students, legislators, and other professionals whose work influences Wyoming’s legal system. It is only through a collective, multi-faceted approach that we can truly be successful in extending access to Wyoming’s legal system to those most in need of legal services.

Law firms and lawyers
To begin with, law firms should establish policies that encourage pro bono work on behalf of underserved populations. Lawyers themselves should also seek opportunities to engage in pro bono work on behalf of underserved populations. According to a recent ABA survey, 66% of U.S. lawyers do pro bono work. ABA president Robert Grey Jr., ABA emphasizes that “Despite the worthy efforts of legal services and pro bono lawyers, indigent people don’t have adequate access to justice.”

Positively, over 70% of Wyoming’s attorneys perform at least five hours of front-end pro bono work, including substantially-reduced legal services, which is above the national percentage. However, it is clear that more can be done to extend accessibility to the state’s underserved populations. The offering of greater incentives for such work and a more community-based approach to the practice of law on the part of law firms will increase the percentage of Wyoming’s attorneys who offer such services, as well as the number of pro bono hours offered to underserved populations.

Law firms and solo practitioners should also work to establish partnerships with non-profits and other organizations, as well as individuals, who provide services to underserved populations. For example, law firms can network with organizations and agencies that provide counseling, emotional care, and other services to victims of domestic violence.

Law firms that do not have bilingual attorneys can also create partnerships with organizations and individuals who are willing to interpret for Spanish-only speaking clients. When law firms are aware of community resources, and those providing community resources are aware of the services law firms are willing to provide, it is more likely that individuals in need of services will be properly referred so that their needs can be adequately addressed.

Law firms, particularly in more diverse communities, should strongly consider hiring ethnic minority attorneys, bi-lingual attorneys, female attorneys, attorneys who are members of the LGBT community, and attorneys otherwise genuinely and sincerely interested in helping underserved populations. Lawyers themselves become informed about the issues that confront Wyoming’s underserved. As Wyoming’s population grows and becomes more heterogeneous, the need for culturally competent attorneys will become more evident.

Law firms should also engage in community outreach to educate underserved populations about the services available to them; not only legal-related services, but also other services provided by community organizations and other agencies. Such outreach will not only do a service to the ideals of justice and equality, but will also benefit law firms in the long run, both financially and professionally, as outreach to untapped communities creates future legal and other business opportunities. Although poverty is typically pervasive among underserved populations, many people from disadvantaged backgrounds will move up the social ladder, become successful in their own right, and likely need legal services for a variety of reasons throughout the course of their lives. Individuals from underserved populations do not forget those who lend a hand in times of need.

Law firms and solo practitioners seriously interested in addressing the needs of the underserved as a routine part of their practice should consider community lawyering strategies such as those proposed by Rose Cuison Villazor in a recent article in the New York University Journal of Legislation and Public Policy 2005. Community lawyering – a term apparently coined by Villazor, who considers herself a community lawyer – is a “social change strategy” that “focuses on engaging lawyers to de-emphasize litigation as the primary tool for achieving social justice. Instead, community lawyering encourages lawyers to critically and creatively examine non-traditional forms of advocacy such as organizing and other grassroots actions as a way of addressing the legal and non-legal problems of their clients.

Community lawyering “enables community members to develop the skills and knowledge needed to challenge future discriminatory practices and policies,” that serve as barriers to underserved populations. Advocacy strategies affiliated with community lawyering include organizing, community education, media outreach, petition drives, public demonstrations, lobbying, and economic development that will provide long-term benefits for underserved populations.

Those considering engaging in community lawyering should be aware that a major limitation with respect to community lawyering strategies is that they may not have as far-reaching of an effect as litigation. However, it is arguable that if lawyers and other actors in the legal community are doing their part in their own particular community, such work may be more beneficial than continuing to focus solely on litigation alone, which may or may not reap the benefits sought on a state or national scale.

In addition to educating themselves on issues that affect underserved populations, judges should encourage attorneys to educate themselves on such issues. Judges are the stewards of the legal system, and as such should encourage knowledge and competence among the legal system’s actors, especially on issues that affect underserved populations, as they are most in need of the knowledge and expertise that lawyers possess.

Judges should also seek to be visibly involved in the community. As symbols of the legal community, judges’ presence and involvement at community events that are attended by underserved populations sends a message to them about the accessibility of the legal system.

Law students
Law students, like lawyers and judges, should seek to educate themselves about the legal needs of the state’s underserved populations. In addition to taking courses that prepare one for a financially successful practice of law, students should also consider taking courses that will help them prepare for a successful career of public service. Along with the professional and financial benefits that flow from obtaining a J.D., there is also an inherent duty to the public that flows from obtaining such an education, as choosing a career in law naturally involves a pledge to pursue justice and equality.

Law students interested in serving the legal needs of the state’s underserved populations while still in school should also consider internships with UW’s legal services clinics. Although a time-intensive commitment, Playton, who supervises UW’s Domestic Violence and ASUW Student Legal Services clinics stresses that “[l]aw students are one of Wyoming’s strongest assets for providing legal services to indigent clients statewide. They represent an enormous reservoir of time, energy, and enthusiasm.”

Legislators and other politicians
Wyoming’s legislators and other politicians should strongly consider advocating for funding and other initiatives that support Wyoming’s legal services programs. Significant pro bono contributions are being made by law firms and private practitioners throughout the state. However, as recognized by the ABA, “a well-funded federal legal services program is essential to leverage other resources–human and financial–to help meet the legal needs of the poor.” It is time that the state’s legal services programs, which have earned the respect of the state’s legal community, as well as the respect of the broader community as a whole, receive the state funding they need to continue to provide quality legal services to the people of Wyoming.

Other professionals whose work affects the legal system
Social workers, health care workers, and others whose work touches the legal system should educate themselves about accessibility issues, as well as legal assistance programs that extend access to underserved populations. They should also show support for legal assistance programs by referring individuals to such programs when appropriate.

Other professionals who work either directly or indirectly with the legal system should also seek to develop ethical working relationships with attorneys, law firms, and other organizations that seek to extend access to the legal system. This is especially important for physicians and other health care professionals, who often see themselves at odds with the legal community. Providing quality services to underserved populations often involves the provision of various types of resources from multiple sources. Working together makes it more likely that underserved populations will receive the services they need.

While legal actors in Wyoming’s legal community are making substantial contributions to the state’s underserved populations; lawyers, judges, politicians, law students, and other professionals who consciously choose to make a greater commitment to extending accessibility to the underserved, and who choose to follow some of proposed recommendations, will contribute substantially to increasing accessibility to the state’s legal system.

Undoubtedly, to self-identify as the “The Equality State” is one thing, but to live up to such a claim with respect to legal accessibility is quite another. While the task of seeking to extend accessibility, so as to provide every conceivable person in need of legal services with the services they need, is daunting, it is a worthwhile endeavor. As suggested by Paul Marvy and Debra Gardner in a recent article titled A Civil Right to Counsel for the Poor, “Poverty should not mean having to surrender vital legal rights. If our justice system conditions the rights to family, housing, and food upon having enough wealth to afford a lawyer, there is no justice in it.”

Although visions of equality and justice are often lost in the realities of inequality that plague our society, striving to live up to the motto of “The Equality State” isn’t such a bad challenge.

Adrian H. Molina is a third-year law student at the University of Wyoming College of Law.

Copyright © 2005 – Wyoming State Bar