Investigating Access to Justice, the Rural Lawyer Shortage, and Implications for Civil and Criminal Legal Systems
Working Paper: Research Methods for Rural Criminologists (2022 Forthcoming)
13 Pages Posted: 23 Apr 2021
Date Written: April 2021
Access to justice (A2J) is associated with a number of metrics aimed at assessing the extent to which people enjoy equal access to courts, including pre-trial means for resolving disputes. While the concept is typically associated with civil justice systems, many factors associated with that context overlap with criminal justice system concerns. Central among these and of growing significance in the rural context is a worsening attorney shortage. When lawyers are not readily available, A2J is undermined, and costs to litigants and courts rise.
Many quantitative factors measured in relation to A2J are unidimensional and have limited ability to reveal the full complexity of impediments to accessing legal processes. Simple metrics include attorney counts and caseload data. In both the civil and criminal contexts, the more revealing studies deploy mixed methods; in studying indigent defense, interviews with key stakeholders have proved particularly effective. Surveys of litigants, attorneys, and judges have proved highly informative, too, especially in rural settings without infrastructure for tracking data. Ethnographic research remains rare in both criminal and civil contexts. Meanwhile, law scholars often frame their work more explicitly in terms of constitutional and other legal issues, e.g., attorney ethics, implicated by access.
This chapter, written for an anthology on Research Methods for Rural Criminologists, begins with a broad introduction to A2J. Next, it turns a geographic lens on the A2J landscape, highlighting spatial and place-specific issues as a prelude to discussing rural deficits, including the lawyer shortage. The chapter concludes by discussing rural criminal justice, with a focus on indigent defense. Tribal courts are beyond the scope of this chapter.
Keywords: criminology, access to justice, rural, geography, legal deserts, indigent defense, legal aid, methods, methodology, conflict of interest
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