Disasters in Rural California: The Impact on Access to Justice

Published by: California Commission on Access to Justice Task Force. Published in July 2019.

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After describing how legal aid helps rural residents post-disaster, the report discusses how a rural lawyer shortage is exacerbated by other barriers to representation and assistance. In rural areas, there is only one attorney for 626 residents, compared to urban areas, where there is one attorney for 175 residents. When disaster strikes, the lack of attorneys in rural areas can make recovery uneven.

Highlights include:

  • “While the issues facing those affected by a disaster may not at first appear to be legal issues, many do implicate law and legal processes: housing (habitability, eviction, and foreclosure), insurance, wills and trusts, family law, access to government benefits, employment (unlawful job termination, unsafe working conditions), consumer issues (price-gouging, contractor fraud), and FEMA claim denial. The role of legal aid is to address the civil manifestations of poverty by providing legal services to low-income people. Legal aid is thus pivotal to the disaster recovery process because the high degree of damage and disruption creates an enormous need for legal assistance” (p. 4).
  • “Legal aid must have the funding and resources to provide wide-ranging services that protect low-income and vulnerable Californians after a disaster. These populations disproportionately reside in rural areas, where both legal aid lawyers and attorneys generally are in short supply” (p. 14).
  • “The disruption caused by disaster may lead employers to refuse wages to workers for labor already completed; some terminate workers. Legal aid and pro bono counsel can help enforce laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA). These laws ensure that employers provide a healthy, safe working environment, particularly in a disaster area” (p. 10).
  • “Access to public benefits, affordable housing, consumer protection and myriad other issues are vitally important to vulnerable Californians who need legal assistance when confronting them. Yet rural Californians often face many such issues alone, in part because both lawyers and legal aid funding are scarce in rural areas. When faced with disaster, low-income residents in rural places, already structurally disadvantaged, face even more acute needs for legal assistance. Ensuring access to quality legal assistance –for both low-income and modest- means clients –builds a system of inclusion and access to justice for underserved communities, an especially urgent and critical mission following a disaster” (p. 16).

Categories: Consumer, Consumer/finance, Disaster Victims, Employment, Employment, Housing, Housing, Income Maintenance, Legal Aid Attorneys, Legal Aid Practitioners, News Media, Policymakers and Funders, Public Benefits, Researchers and Academics, State-Specific, Victims of Crime

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