The way Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid and affiliated organizations see it, if you can’t come to legal help, maybe it can come to you.
The nonprofit and its colleagues recently unveiled Justice Buses, a new project designed to bring legal resources as part of the larger Reach Justice Initiative. MMLA provides free legal help to seniors, people with low income and those with disabilities in 20 central Minnesota counties.
The project began when MMLA sought a way to offer legal help to communities where it doesn’t have an office.
The organization used some money from a variety of sources, including the federal CARES Act, to buy and retrofit four buses in 2020. Members of the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition (MLSC) also pitched in.
Demand for low-cost civil legal services all over Minnesota has risen as a result of the public health and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Justice Buses came along as part of Reach Justice Minnesota, a series of initiatives meant to leverage technology and emergency staffing to help protect Minnesotans’ basic civil and human rights in the face of an unprecedented emergency and disaster.
The four buses will provide accessibility to free civil legal services to Minnesotans throughout the state. According to Ann Cofell, deputy director of MMLA’s St. Cloud and Willmar offices, the response so far has been positive. The needs of mobile clients might include simple legal services like finding rental assistance or navigating public benefits — services for which demand has steadily risen, especially among those who either can’t afford such services or don’t have access to them.
“We took one bus to St. Cloud recently, and we had 15 clients come through,” she said. “The buses have been to a handful of events over the summer, and we’re finding that there is definitely a demand.”
The executive directors of MMLA, Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services (SMRLS), Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota (LSNM), and Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota (LASNEM) gathered at the state Capitol recently to announce the official roll-out of the Justice Buses beginning to deliver free, mobile legal aid across Minnesota.
The mini-buses, containing accessible office space, are staffed by attorneys and legal assistants from all four programs. They also offer people help getting rental assistance and forestalling evictions, as well as other legal issues arising from the pandemic. Each bus offers private and semi-private meeting spaces as well as commonly used legal forms and information. All materials and services are free of charge.
“The Reach Justice program, and these Justice Buses, will allow lawyers and legal assistance to meet the people where they are, in their communities all around Minnesota,” said Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Lorie Gildea during the press conference. “Through Reach Justice and the Justice Buses, we are breaking down barriers and we are increasing access to justice for all the people of Minnesota.”
Also at the press conference were MMLA Executive Director Drew Schaffer, LASNEM Executive Director Dori Streit, SMRLS CEO Jessie Nicholson and LSNM Executive Director Anne Hoefgen.
Designed by MLSC, the free legal clinics are based on similar programs that have cropped up across the United States in recent years. As COVID-19 wanes — and waxes — more people are taking the opportunity to go out and attend to legal and other matters that can no longer be left dormant.
“We were actually talking about doing something like this before COVID,” said Cofell. “It just happened that we got serious about it as the virus hit.”
To counteract the brutal effects of the pandemic — especially as it relates to vulnerable community members — the Justice Buses and similar outreach initiatives aim to create a larger ring of safe physical locations that can reach and help people wherever they are.
The main goal of the Justice Buses is a simple matter of access, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison said during the recent news conference to introduce the program.
“These buses, justice on wheels, [are] a way for people to feel that sense that they live in a society that cares, where their voice will be heard,” Ellison said.
The buses will continue to make appearances at community centers and various events. Anyone interested is encouraged to contact MMLA to arrange a possible appearance in their town.
“We’ll come to rec centers, churches, wherever,” said Cofell. “We’d like to keep this going indefinitely — at least until the buses wear out.”