A unique pro bono initiative in California caught the eye of Lauren Breen and Neighborhood Legal Services Inc. so much so that they’re taking it for a spin here.
“What we are doing in Western New York is something much more modest, but we’re really excited,” said Breen, executive director of NLS.
The Justice Bus will soon make its way through Erie, Genesee, Niagara, Orleans and Wyoming counties to provide legal assistance to the impoverished and disabled. The concept was originated by the West Coast-based OneJustice, whose Justice Bus Project brought attorneys and volunteers to rural California areas to host free legal clinics and provide counsel. NLS will soon have a custom-decorated van to transport volunteers to individuals who need assistance.
“We have been working with OneJustice for about a year (to establish it),” Breen said. “They are looking to replicate this in about 25 sites across the country. We’re excited that we got in at the ground level to be able to be one of the first.”
The project was financed locally by a grant from the James H. Cummings Foundation. The vehicle, which seats 12, is expected to be ready this summer. Legal services will start soon after. Breen said she wants to fill the van with four volunteer attorneys, four law students and four legal services staff who will visit rural and urban areas.
Access to justice for people without transportation is a problem nationwide, said Breen and Grace Andriette, NLS deputy director and supervising attorney of the housing unit.
“Buffalo leads the nation in terms of people who lack transportation,” Andriette said statistics have shown. “The goal of the program overall is to increase access to justice … and bridge the transportation gap that we have here in the city and in our rural communities.”
NLS said the uniqueness of the Justice Bus may help in recruiting volunteers and serve as a way to inform qualifying people who need legal help that they can find it through NLS and other local legal services groups.
“The bus is going to enable us to reach people in those counties who may never find their way to (one of our offices),” Breen said. “There aren’t a lot of attorneys (in some of the counties where the bus will operate) and a lot of our clients can’t afford an attorney, so it’s really critical that we are able to serve our rural areas better.”
NLS assists individuals with housing, public benefits services, disability, social security and family legal issues. In 2018, a total of 7,100 cases were handled that benefited 15,900 people. Thirty attorneys are on staff.
“If our bus is driving through communities, people will see it and see Neighborhood Legal Services and what we do,” Andriette said. “It’s sort of like a moving billboard for our services.”
Supportive partners in the initiative include the state Assembly and Senate, Volunteer Lawyers Project, WNY Law Center, University at Buffalo School of Law and Seneca Street Community Development Corp.
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