Alaska’s legal system can be daunting for the average citizen, and not everyone can afford professional help. The Alaska Bar Association tries to get private attorneys to donate time to needy clients, but there are fewer lawyers who can do that. The Alaska Bar Association is trying to close the “justice gap.”
Everyone accused of a crime has the right to an attorney, but that’s not a right for parties in civil cases. If you are getting a divorce, or someone sues you, you have to pay for legal counsel or go it alone.
And Rob Stone, the president of the Alaska Bar Association says there is a lawyer shortage today in certain sectors like poverty law and family law.
“70-80 percent of domestic relations cases involve unrepresented people, and that’s a shocking statistic. How do we provide representation to those people? How do they navigate through the legal system because it is a foreign concept for them.”
Attorneys in Alaska are required to join the Bar Association, which recommends members volunteer a certain number of hours per year providing free legal help to those who cannot afford it. The term “pro bono” is short for “pro bono publico” meaning, for the good of the people. But more older attorneys are retiring, and younger attorneys starting their practices are burdened with student loan debt.
“There are a tremendous number of lawyers who volunteer their time throughout Alaska, there are lawyers who don’t volunteer their time. And the Supreme Court and the Bar Association struggles with trying to find representation for people who can’t afford their services.”
There is a small non-profit organization of lawyers who handle nothing but poverty law cases; they are Alaska Legal Services Corporation, or ALSC. Not only do they have a long waiting list, they had their state grant cut this year. That means the “justice gap” between those who can afford an attorney and those who can’t is even larger.
Krista Scully is the Alaska Bar Association’s Pro Bono coordinator.
“What we do in Alaska, is just get creative. The Landlord-Tenant Clinic happens twice a week every month of the year, and we launched an on-line legal clinic and we’ve been at that for about three years now.”
That online program is called Alaska Free Legal Answers. That and the call-in Landlord-Tenant clinic are staffed by volunteer attorneys, who donate their time to answer short questions instead of making face-to-face appointments with clients.
“I market it as #twentyminutes because it takes an average of about 20 minutes to answer one of these questions.”
Scully says about 700 Alaskans have used these free services. And there are more resources for folks who can navigate some text-dense materials from the Family Law Self-Help Center, and the Court System has short videos for self-help.
“My dream is that I get worked out of a job, because all of these issues are handled. But in the meantime, its important people know the justice community is aware of how hard it is, and we are working to change that.”