Thanks to COVID funding from the CARES Act, Legal Aid is spreading justice faster (hopefully!) than the Coronavirus. A Justice Bus will be hitting the roads of central Minnesota in early March 2021, and legal kiosks are being installed throughout the 20-county service area.
Rural Minnesotans face many obstacles to legal help, and the pandemic has exacerbated the problem. Legal Aid once had offices in Cambridge, Little Falls, and Marshall, but funding has not been sufficient to keep those offices open. When the offices closed, case numbers in those areas dropped. It’s difficult to maintain community relationships and trust without a physical presence.
Transportation is always an issue in rural areas. Limited public transit options come with high exposure risks, making it even harder for those living outside of urban centers to see a lawyer. The Justice Bus will be dedicated to the more rural parts of the service area.
“Removing barriers to justice in rural communities – that’s exciting to me,” says Ann Cofell, Deputy Director of Legal Aid’s St. Cloud and Willmar offices. “The Justice Bus will travel on regular outreach rotations, so residents in rural areas can rely on scheduled visits from the mobile justice team.”
The bus is a large, retrofitted van owned by Legal Aid. The small mobile office with a computer, copier, printer, fact sheets, and other informational documents will serve Minnesotans through the pandemic and long after. Legal Aid has always relied upon partnerships with other agencies and organizations to reach out to the public and provide services but finding an actual location with sufficient technological support often proves difficult.
“I can see the bus pulling up to libraries, community centers, pride festivals, Juneteenth celebrations, and health fairs,” Cofell says. “We’ll work with local radio stations, domestic violence shelters, and city governments to get the word out to local communities. Once the weather gets nice, we’ll set up tables outside the bus with lawyers and information.”
People in smaller towns often don’t know that free legal services are available to them. Regular visits from the Justice Bus will build and sustain partnerships between Legal Aid and local providers in the more remote parts of the service area. Residents and advocates with legal issues will be able to speak directly with an attorney, rather than calling an intake line or traveling to an office.
The Justice Bus is part of a plan to create a widening circle of safe physical locations for both rural and urban Minnesotans to access legal services. The vision is to mitigate the social and economic effects of the pandemic for thousands – especially the disproportionate numbers of people of color, people with disabilities, and seniors who have suffered under Covid-19.
“We’ve done our best to create safe zones at our physical offices, but we can’t see our clients there now,” Cofell says. “Many Minnesotans experience a digital divide and a physical divide to accessing legal help and legal systems safely. We got into this because we value justice, and justice is the ideal. We can’t wait to take that ideal on the road.”