Published August 21, 2019
What’s to be done when disadvantaged residents lack transportation to get the legal help they need?
One solution: Take the legal help right to them.
That’s the idea behind the Justice Bus — a 12-passenger van that will transport lawyers and law students to provide on-the-spot legal help to poor and disabled people in Western New York. It’s an initiative of Neighborhood Legal Services, joined by community partners including Volunteer Lawyers Project, the Western New York Law Center and the UB School of Law.
The Justice Bus will travel to underserved Buffalo neighborhoods and rural areas of Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming counties. It’s expected to be ready this summer, providing road trips that include volunteer attorneys, law students and legal services staff members.
“The bus is going to enable us to reach people in those counties who may never find their way to (one of our offices),” says Lauren Breen, executive director of Neighborhood Legal Services and a former UB Law faculty member. “There aren’t a lot of attorneys (in some of the counties where the bus will operate), and a lot of our clients can’t afford an attorney, so it’s really critical that we are able to serve our rural areas better.”
The goal, Breen says, is to provide legal help to those who need help addressing basic needs such as food, shelter and safety.
For public-minded UB law students, the Justice Bus is another opportunity to build real-world lawyering skills and do their part in improving residents’ access to justice.
“This is not just information referral, but technical assistance,” explains Melinda R. Saran, the law school’s vice dean for social justice initiatives. “It gives the students a chance to work on their interview skills, their issue-spotting skills, how to communicate with clients, how to refer them to the right practitioner. They’ll do intake interviewing, make sure they’re eligible for services, help them with filling out forms. If something’s easily resolved, they can give them the appropriate form or tell them where to go to resolve the issue. And if they do need an attorney, students will make sure they get to the right attorney.”
Saran notes that some students might want to sign on to the initiative because they just like to volunteer. Others might use the Justice Bus to work toward the 50 hours of pro bono service that are required in New York State in order to seek admission to the bar. The opportunity will be open to all law students, including first-years.
Saran says the experience — particularly in serving rural clients — likely will be eye-opening for many students. “This allows them to see a different kind of practice without going out by themselves,” she says. “It gives them an opportunity to meet different people and see different lifestyles. And it’s an exciting way to do that — you’re not stuck in one office all the time.”
A pilot launch is scheduled for September.