Lack of Lawyers, Information Present Major Challenges in Rural Georgia
Tara Vogel (J.D. ’14), a staff attorney out of the Macon office of the Georgia Legal Services Program, bought a new car after she graduated from Georgia State Law two years ago.
The car now has 30,000 miles on the odometer.
Vogel has a lot of face-to-face time with her windshield before she can get face-to-face time with impoverished clients in rural Georgia.
“I feel bad for my car,” Vogel chuckled.
She feels worse for her clients in rural counties who have to deal with, among other things, loss of government benefits, one-sided lease agreements with landlords and predator loans. There are also proof of identity snafus in rural areas of the state because many prospective clients were born with the help of a midwife and may have incorrect birth certificates, or none at all.
Contrast that with Main Street in a larger Georgia city — turn any direction and you are likely to see an attorney’s shingle.
The local economy plays a role in the scarcity of lawyers in the rural area. In Mitchell County, which is south of Albany, 32.6 percent of residents are considered impoverished, according to 2014 U.S. census figures. In Calhoun County, it’s 38.7 percent.
“I don’t think there is enough business to sustain a large number of attorneys in some rural counties,” said John Gee Edwards (J.D. ’02), a personal injury/criminal defense attorney in Valdosta.
A circuit-rider like Vogel is critical to the state’s judicial system. She can have showdowns with state entities in court, but much of her time is spent educating citizens on their rights.
“Access to information is an issue in rural areas,” Vogel said. “People don’t know where to turn, so they don’t even try. People will go to court without a lawyer or not even go to court, which ends up hurting them even more.
“You see so many people going to the library to use the Internet because they don’t have it at home, and they are trying to find any information they can. The librarians don’t know how to help them. The court clerk can’t help them because they cannot give legal advice. So a lot of people feel shut out, like no one wants to help them, like no one cares about them.”
Access to justice is an issue on both the civil side, where those going to court may not be entitled to a lawyer, and on the criminal side, where defendants typically do have a right to an attorney.
Peter Zeliff (J.D. ’98), a criminal attorney in Forsyth County and North Atlanta, is a staunch defender of public defenders.
“I know public defenders in rural areas who are outstanding, and, in fact, they might be the best lawyer in the courtroom, but they don’t have the resources,” Zeliff said. “They are swamped.”
Do rural public defenders have the added burden of politics?
“The honest answer is yes,” Zeliff said. “They have to be diplomatic. They are in a courtroom with a particular judge several times a week. It is harder to be a thorn.”
In a larger system like DeKalb County, which has approximately 57 public defenders, it’s easier to debate in the courtroom, he said.
“My very first job was to be a public defender in DeKalb, and the first thing my employer told me was, ‘Go to court and raise hell.’ I knew exactly what he meant,” Zeliff said.
The driving distance to small South Georgia towns is also a frequent issue. It can make hiring a legal expert prohibitive — a luxury really, Edwards said.
“You have to go to bigger cities to find expert witnesses because that is generally where their home base is located,” Edwards said. “I usually go to Atlanta, and I have gone to Florida to look for experts. Travel for an expert is going to add to the cost.”
Nicki Vaughan (J.D. ’94), a public defender in the Northeastern Circuit of Hall and Dawson Counties, agrees that “the real challenge is in South Georgia and the far reaches of North Georgia.” There are several counties in South Georgia that do not have a single lawyer, said Vaughan, who is on the Executive Committee of the State Bar and involved with the State Bar Access to Justice Committee.
The state bar and many legal aid entities are actively working to get more attorneys to those areas of need.
In Atlanta and other metropolitan areas of the state, the large, established law firms are supportive of, and some even require, pro bono work for their lawyers. The task there, Vaughan said, is to get those transactional attorneys, who are accustomed to writing contracts, doing real estate work, banking and other work outside of court, to feel comfortable in a courtroom or to identify work they can do outside of court.
But the majority of the need seems to be in representing people in court, and getting to South Georgia for Atlanta-area lawyers is an all-day venture for which few have the time to expend. “Even if they do it, they can’t do it often,” Vaughan said.
The state bar has made access to justice a major component of its strategic plan and is looking at ways to use technology to connect those who need legal services with lawyers willing to represent clients in areas where access is limited.
“Some counties already have self-help kiosks for obtaining necessary forms, and some courts, including Hall County, offer free legal advice and forms to people in need of family violence protective orders,” she said.
The Gainesville GLSP Office has various dates set for volunteer lawyers to assist people who come in needing help primarily filling out forms for probate matters, which gives its attorneys more time to attend to more complex matters.