Coronavirus Highlights Unequal Access to Legal Services in Rural Communities

By Matthew Krumholtz

A Look at the Lives of Five Rural Lawyers

Social distancing and stay-at-home orders are effectively reducing the spread of coronavirus in New York, but the impacts of these protocols are not being felt equally across the state. The crisis has put a particular strain on legal services in rural communities, where there is limited access to technologies that are necessary to work remotely.

“What’s ironic is the impact of COVID-19 itself, as a pernicious disease, is less in rural areas because of the remoteness and the lack of concentration of people,” said Associate Justice Stan L. Pritzker of the Appellate Division, Third Department. “On the other hand, the impacts of COVID-19 on the justice system may be even worse because of the lack of technology and infrastructure.”

The coronavirus pandemic is raising new concerns about the unequal access to legal services in New York’s rural counties. Judge Pritzker co-chaired NYSBA’s Task Force for Rural Justice, which developed a report and recommendations that were adopted by the House of Delegates at its first ever virtual meeting on April 4. The report spotlighted both the declining number of legal practitioners serving rural areas and the dearth of broadband internet access to support rural lawyers and their clients.

These obstacles to legal services plagued New York’s rural counties long before the COVID-19 pandemic, but this outbreak is compounding the access-to-justice crisis in rural areas of the state, as lawyers in remote counties scramble to find the resources they need to keep in touch with their clients and keep their businesses afloat.

“COVID-19 is really highlighting the inequity of the situation,” said Taier Perlman, co-chair of the task force and staff attorney at Legal Services of the Hudson Valley. “It’s going to increase the need for poverty law services, which is going to be a greater barrier in rural communities where there’s already a shortage of attorneys.”

The vast majority of New York counties are rural, and 44 out of 62 counties in the state have populations of less than 200,000. The majority of New York lawyers, however, are located in the urban centers of the state, with only about 4% of the state’s legal practitioners working in rural areas.

The economic downturn resulting from the coronavirus crisis is especially hard on rural law practices, since many are small businesses with tight margins. In fact, roughly 80% of rural law practices are solo practices or small firms.

“We’re feeling the pain right now,” said Michael Shultes, whose law office is located in Cobleskill. “We all understand that this is bigger than us and that safety is the most important thing for everyone, but this is hurting us just like any other small business.”

Perlman expressed concern about what the economic impacts to small law firms will do to the lopsided ratio of residents to attorneys in rural areas. “How many will decide ‘I can’t bear to run this business anymore, I’m going to find legal work elsewhere,’ thus taking away another very needed attorney in a rural area where there are fewer attorneys?”

“I’ve had to lay off my two employees; they’re on unemployment right now,” said Judith Pareira, who owns a solo practice in Saranac Lake. “I can’t put in my bills to the state for my representation of children until the cases are finished. If the cases aren’t moving, they don’t finish, so I can’t get any income.”

Dwindling income is not the only shortfall facing rural law practices during this crisis. As lawyers across the state figure out how to work remotely, rural practitioners face particular challenges, since broadband internet access is not uniformly available or reliable in rural counties.

In 2015, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo launched a $500 million program, Broadband for All, to bring high-speed internet access to the roughly 30% of New Yorkers living mostly in rural areas without broadband. The Task Force on Rural Justice recommended an expansion of the program.

“The lack of access to communication technology translates readily to a lack of access to justice,” said Presiding Justice Elizabeth Garry of the Appellate Division, Third Department.

The lack of broadband access in rural areas is a significant obstacle to lawyers who are now forced to conduct their businesses remotely, in compliance with social distancing guidelines. The Task Force report pinpointed the problem: “[Y]our cellphone, probably the most important article in an attorney’s bag, becomes a worthless brick without a cell phone signal to back it up. Travel through upstate New York with some of your colleagues to find out how important that fickle signal can be.”

The task force recommended that the Office of Court Administration should encourage and promote remote video conference appearances in town and village court systems and expand e-filing options for lawyers and litigants.

“The way that the Unified Court System is rolling out e-filing and virtual teleconference hearings across their network of courts is not the way that it’s being rolled out in the town and village courts,” said Perlman. “They have fewer resources and less funding to do that in a consistent, uniform manner, and so it basically creates an uneven distribution of access to justice.”

Just as courts and attorneys in rural areas are not uniformly equipped with the technology needed for remote work, clients are experiencing significant setbacks to their cases in areas without reliable internet.

For example, Perlman said, she has clients who can’t send her the documents she needs for their cases because they don’t have the technology to scan or fax at their homes.

“I just had a conversation with Essex County Mental Health Services regarding one of my clients, and the mental health provider told me that she wasn’t able to have a conversation with my client because she didn’t have the internet that she needed at her home,” said Julie Garcia, the former Essex County District Attorney, who has a solo practice in Port Henry.

“The people in the North Country are no strangers to making lemonade out of lemons,” said Garcia. “We can’t really sit back during this time where New York State is on pause and not be planning for what lies ahead. If we approach this the right way, I think we will come out better, as a more just society.”

Matthew Krumholtz is a freelance writer.

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