“They Had Access, But They Didn’t Get Justice”: Why Prevailing Access To Justice Initiatives Fail Rural Americans
Written By: Michele Statz, Hon. Robert Friday, and Jon Bredeson
In the United States, access to justice (A2J) initiatives are developed by people and institutions in urban areas. Accordingly, A2J supports are often premised on technological, professional, and infrastructural capacities that simply do not exist in many rural regions. Until now, no one has empirically examined the consequences of this metrocentric approach. Drawing on over three years of mixed-methods research across the Upper Midwest, this Article offers an urgent response. Not only are A2J “solutions” intrinsically insufficient in rural areas, but they compound existing stress and are even experienced as humiliating by many low-income rural residents. By introducing the role of dignity—and what, or who, best provides it in the rural A2J context—this Article offers a novel and necessary intervention in access to justice scholarship and policies.
Uniting empirical data and policy analysis, this Article argues that prevailing A2J initiatives are flawed at three primary levels: (1) a failure to meaningfully recognize the limits of rural infrastructural capacity and the complex barriers low-income rural residents in particular navigate; (2) a presumption that anyone in a crisis situation, let alone someone facing these barriers, can effectively be their own attorney; and (3) a professional understanding of justice that is critically at odds with rural individuals’ own expectations. Our response is not to offer one more rural A2J “silver bullet” initiative, though the Article discusses what A2J options may offer more locally relevant experiences of justice. Instead, this Article highlights broader tensions that emerge when dominant narratives around “access” are held against the lived expertise of those who daily experience rural attorney shortages and other structural inequities. As the Article demonstrates, this profound mismatch of expectations is hugely consequential, resulting in forms of “access” that are in rural areas experienced as barriers to justice.