Oregon Legal Needs Study

The State of Access to Justice in Oregon, published in 2000, examines the civil legal needs of low and moderate income Oregonians. Commissioned by the Oregon State Bar and co-sponsored by the Oregon the Judicial Department and the Office of the Governor John Kitzhaber, M.D., the studys primary source of data was a legal needs survey of 1,011 low and moderate income persons conducted throughout Oregon during the fall and winter of 1999-2000. Additional information was provided by judges, lawyers, social service workers, community leaders and legal services providers through focus groups, interviews, and surveys.

Part I of The State of Access to Justice in Oregon describes the findings of a statewide study of the civil legal needs of low and moderate income Oregonians. The study makes it clear that Oregons lower income citizens do not have equal access to justice.

Part II of the report, "Improving Access to Justice," discusses the implications of these findings and proposes steps that can lead to effective access to the legal system for Oregons low and moderate income citizens.

Key Findings Regarding Existing Services

  • The current legal services delivery system cannot meet the critical legal needs of lower income Oregonians without additional funding.
  • The current legal services delivery system is meeting the legal needs of low income people in 53,650 (or 17.8%) of the 301,944 cases a year that require a lawyers assistance. The unmet need is estimated to be about 250,000 cases a year.

Other Findings

Where do low and moderate income Oregonians obtain legal representation?

  • For 82.2% of their legal problems, they do not obtain any legal representation
  • For 9.7% of their legal problem, they obtain help from a legal services program
  • For 8.1% of their legal problems, they obtain help from a private attorney, including 4.3% pro bono and 3.8% for full fees.

What are some of the greatest areas of legal need?
The highest need for legal assistance arises in housing, public services, family, employment, and consumer cases. Other areas of high need for particular discrete population groups include farm worker, immigration, education and elder abuse issues.

How does the private bar help to provide legal services to low and moderate income Oregonians?
The institutional capacity to provide legal services is significantly augmented by pro bono work by lawyers throughout the state. Most of the legal services providers have pro bono components associated with their programs that are certified by the Oregon State Bar. These components significantly extend the capacities of sponsoring programs to reach more clients with a broader range of legal services.

The range of cases accepted and types of pro bono services provided is quite broad. For example, there are clinics in Multnomah County that provide complete services for clients or services targeted to address specific legal problems (domestic violence, landlord and tenant, senior citizens), as well as "advice only" clinics. Throughout the state, individual attorneys provide full representation to individual clients. In addition, some pro bono attorneys co-counsel with legal services lawyers on cases where either the private expertise is valuable to the legal services attorney or the poverty law expertise is valuable to the private attorney. Occasionally, private attorneys provide representation to legal services entities on a pro bono basis.

Attorneys with Active Emeritus or Active Pro Bono Status with the Oregon State Bar provide additional pro bono services throughout the state.

Although there are pro bono programs in each community where a legal services program is sited, the availability of pro bono lawyers to augment the system is not evenly distributed throughout the state. Urban areas tend to have a higher availability of advocates, probably as a result of the economics of law practice.

Steps to Improve Access to Justice

  • Expand the network of legal services offices and specialized programs in Oregon to regain lost capacity and to create an integrated network that can meet the most critical needs of low and moderate income families.
  • Restore significant new federal resources to the legal services system, with as few limitations on representation as possible.
  • Join the twenty-two other states that fund legal services for the poor through a general fund appropriation.
  • Support adequate funding for the court system.
  • For routine legal matters such as divorce, create uniform procedures and forms statewide to promote and simplify self-advocacy.
  • Through cooperation of the State Bar, Department of Justice and legal services programs explore production of video and cable TV self-help materials.
  • Support renewal of funds for the successful courthouse facilitator program.
  • Coordinate facilitators with private and legal aid lawyers so that unrepresented litigants can obtain legal advice when it is needed.
  • Fund a critical minimum level of mediation services in smaller counties through local county government or another source.
  • Fund the increased use of court-appointed custody evaluations to assist courts and unrepresented litigants in reaching fair and sound results.
  • Judges could consider awarding adequate interim attorneys fees in family cases where one party is represented and the other is not.
  • Judges should be aware that fear of retaliation is a principal reason preventing people from seeking help with legal problems and look for opportunities to protect litigants.
  • Continue to work toward greater availability of qualified interpreters.
  • Law school faculties could be more involved in training students on issues of access to justice.
  • Support law school clinics as a way to educate law students about the needs of the low income community.
  • Implement a loan assistance program for Oregon lawyers employed in low-paid public interest work.
  • Increase the already substantial pro bono efforts of private attorneys.

The Oregon State Bar should:

  • Explore ways to provide staff support for administering its legal services program and for fundraising for other access to justice initiatives.
  • Clarify the responsibilities of attorneys offering representation limited to discrete tasks.
  • Explore the potential of prepaid legal services plans to meet some of the unmet legal need, including an examination of legal or regulatory impediments.
  • Establish and maintain an "Equal Justice Web Page" with links to court web sites and other web sites maintained by legal service providers with technical assistance provided by the Bars technology consultant.
  • Explore the potential for a statewide legal services advice, intake, and self-help hotline that would link the Bar Referral Service, Modest Means Program and Tel-Law.
  • Examine ways to make practice in small firms more attractive. Small firms have traditionally helped lower income clients, but their numbers are declining.
  • Publicize improvements in the Modest Means Program to members of the bar. Find new ways to improve the responsiveness of the program to the needs of clients and lawyers.
  • Work in partnership with the Department of Justice and the Office of the Governor to appoint a task force to implement these recommendations.