The state bar’s research team went into Nevada’s low-income communities to speak directly to citizens about barriers they face to accessing legal services.
Community Resources • State Bar of Nevada
The State Bar of Nevada knew that people with low incomes often had difficulty accessing legal services when they needed them. But when it began to study the problem in 2016, researchers found that traditional information-gathering methods didn’t work.
SBN launched a statewide survey to connect with a population that’s hard to reach “because of transitional housing, because fewer and fewer people actually have landlines,” says SBN Access to Justice Director Brad Lewis. “There’s a lot of call avoidance because people are avoiding debt collectors or unknown calls. Trying to survey people at physical addresses for the low-income population is not producing great results the way it might have a decade ago.”
So how to best understand the shifting legal needs of the state’s poorest residents? Answer: Meet them where they are. SBN’s interviewers hit the streets, visiting dollar stores, laundromats, and rodeos.
Using a mix of law students and other volunteers from legal aid and SBN itself, SBN spent two months speaking with more than 1,000 people who qualified. The research put some hard numbers behind the scope of the problem: 76 percent of the state’s low-income residents were not able to access legal aid, the study found, and the system is badly underfunded, with one lawyer available for every 4,800 residents below the poverty line.
The research identified the broad categories of issues people faced, including employment and housing. It also pinpointed which groups were particularly affected.
“One was the low-income population in the senior community,” Lewis says. “The Great Recession of 2008, combined with the foreclosure crisis in Nevada, left a lot of the senior population devastatingly hit by that double whammy. And there was a significant increase in the poverty rate in the native populations.”
With that information in hand, SBN promoted some policy solutions. An advocacy group used the survey findings to help persuade the state legislature to ease eviction rules and strengthen protections regarding late fees and payday loans. The research also led to one county hiring an advocate for foster children facing legal challenges in the school system.
More broadly, says SBN Executive Director Kimberly Farmer, the research can be used to help motivate more lawyers to help low-income residents via legal aid or pro bono work.
“The education component is really important,” she says. “We now have numbers, statistics, and information to share with Nevada lawyers. It’s useful in energizing Nevada lawyers to contribute. It’s such a big issue, but now they have something they can hold on to.”