We are all familiar with the enormous justice gap nationally and in Minnesota. Staff attorney legal aid programs in Minnesota are so swamped and underfunded that they must turn away two of every three eligible clients.1 In Minnesota, there is one private attorney for every 369 people living above the civil legal aid income threshold, but only one legal aid attorney for every 3,682 clients who are eligible for legal aid.2 Too many low-income Minnesotans lack access to attorneys in such essential civil legal matters as marital dissolution, domestic abuse and eviction proceedings, and cessation of government benefits. Those turned away are often forced to fend for themselves during complicated filing, service, discovery, hearing, and trial processes.
Pro bono programs play an important role in filling the justice gap, but they don’t meet all of the need and are not practical in all situations. Take rural areas, for example: In Hennepin County it makes sense to host a legal advice clinic where attorneys review court forms for self-represented litigants. You will have no shortage of help from the 10,968 registered attorneys in the county. Try the same thing in Traverse County, where there was one active licensed attorney registered in 2013,3 and you will find a much less robust volunteer pool.
Many pro bono volunteers prefer short, discrete assignments in particular legal areas and may not have the time to spend on a case that is lengthier, like a custody case. For example, the popular “Second Chance Saturday” program administered through the Council on Crime and Justice and the Volunteer Lawyers Network offers volunteers the opportunity to give legal advice about criminal expungement cases to four or five clients on a Saturday morning, with no remaining obligations to the clients after they leave the clinic. Many volunteers choose this option over a challenging CHIPS or family law case that could last several years.
How to serve rural clients with complicated cases? Enter Judicare, a delivery model that several Minnesota legal aid programs are using. Judicare programs allow civil legal aid programs to provide modest compensation to private attorneys to handle cases that would otherwise be very difficult to place on purely pro bono terms, either because of the type of legal problem or because there is not a staffed legal aid office located near the client.
Each program operates slightly differently, but by and large, Judicare attorneys are paid $50-$60 per hour directly from civil legal aid programs, serving clients who live between 125-200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. Some programs cap the number of paid hours for attorneys and require pro bono service after the cap has been reached. Most programs also reimburse attorneys for case-related expenses.
The History of Judicare
The word “Judicare” derives from “Medicare” because the original concept involved the government paying private attorneys to provide legal services to indigent individuals on a fee-for-service basis, much as the Medicare program pays private doctors.4 The first Judicare programs in the United States were pilots in Wisconsin, Connecticut, and California, funded by the now-defunct federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s. During this time, the federal government was also funding the development of legal aid organizations using a “staff attorney” model in which attorneys are employees of legal aid organizations serving low-income clients and specializing in case types that most often affect low-income clients. Advocates for both models competed for federal approval and funding. Due to the passage of the Legal Services Corporation Act in 1974, the “staff attorney” model ultimately became the standard service delivery model for low-income clients nationwide, but the Judicare concept has continued to coexist with legal aid programs around the country. 5
Judicare in Minnesota
Judicare programs have been active in Minnesota for over 40 years. The Judicare of Anoka County program was established in 1975 through the efforts of the Anoka County Bar Association, the Anoka Board of County Commissioners and local community groups. In 1976 the Anoka Judicare program received a demonstration grant from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) to provide Judicare services to clients through a panel of local private attorneys who were paid at a reduced rate. While it no longer receives LSC funding, the program still thrives thanks to support from the local community and bar association, using a handful of staff attorneys and a robust panel of 25 Judicare attorneys, most of whom have been members for over 15 years.
In predominantly rural northwest Minnesota, the Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota (LSNM) program was originally established as a Judicare program in 1976. Although a staff component was added shortly thereafter and now constitutes 2/3 of the case work, the private attorney and public lawyer partnership at LSNM continues today. In 1977 there were 57 private attorneys on the Judicare panel; as of 2015 that number had grown to 210 private attorneys, more than 40 of whom have been with the program for more than 20 years.
Judicare has proved to be one of the most viable ways to fill the justice gap in Minnesota’s many rural counties, where lawyers and courthouse resources are few and far between. According to Anne Hoefgen, executive director of LSNM, “For our service area, by far the most important thing about Judicare is access to justice at a reasonable cost. Our clients live across a service area that is over 23,0000 square miles. Many of our clients live over a hundred miles from any of our three staffed offices, and without the Judicare attorneys providing services locally (especially during the winter), they would not have access to legal advice and counsel.”
Though the Judicare model has been around for over 40 years in Minnesota, programs and funders are showing a renewed interest in the program to fill the persistent rural justice gap. The Volunteer Attorney Program (VAP), which provides pro bono services in northeast Minnesota, received state funding in July 2015 to create a Judicare program. VAP Executive Director Dori Streit says that VAP’s approach to Judicare will be modeled on a program in the state of Maryland, where established pro bono programs administer Judicare panels, but require Judicare attorneys to take one purely pro bono case as a condition of receiving a Judicare case.
Another relative newcomer to Judicare was Central Minnesota Legal Services (CMLS), a staff-based legal aid program that has had an established pro bono Volunteer Attorney Program since 1982. In 2011, CMLS received state funding to pilot a Judicare panel program designed to reach clients in lower-population rural counties and to remedy the lack of attorney coverage for family law cases. CMLS currently has 29 attorneys on their Judicare panel, serving clients in family law and bankruptcy cases. Recently, CMLS has asked its panel attorneys to accept a pro bono referral or agree to participate in an advice clinic in exchange for payment on Judicare cases.
Judicare programs are alive and well in Minnesota, accounting for 1,199 of the 16,060 cases closed by private attorneys working with civil legal aid programs in 2014.6 While programs and models vary, one fact has remained consistent over the last 40 years: Judicare attorney panels are always in demand, and the need will only increase as current panelists begin to retire and the rural population continues to age and shrink. Attorneys willing to practice in rural areas might be wise to consider becoming a Judicare panel attorney. The benefits include modest but reliable compensation from legal aid programs, free and reduced-price related CLEs, support from programs if questions arise, and the satisfaction that comes with improving your community. Judicare service even counts as pro bono work under the Minnesota Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 6.1.
Contact the programs below to learn more about becoming a Judicare panel attorney:
Judicare of Anoka County:
Legal Services of Northwest Minnesota:
Volunteer Attorney Program (Northeast MN):
Central Minnesota Legal Services:
Lindsay Davis is the MSBA’s Access to Justice director. She has previously worked as a staff attorney at Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services, an attorney in private practice, and an adjunct professor at Hamline University School of Law and William Mitchell College of Law. She is an MSBA North Star volunteer attorney.
Judicare Panel Attorney Profile: Jim Skoog
How long have you been a volunteer with the Anoka Judicare program?
How does your Judicare work fit with the rest of your practice?
I am a solo practitioner in New Brighton focusing on civil law cases. Judicare cases make up about half of my practice.
What kinds of cases do you take from Anoka Judicare?
Landlord-tenant, bankruptcy, family law, domestic abuse, civil collections, administrative law, and other consumer-related civil cases.
How did you get involved with Anoka Judicare?
I heard about the program from other attorneys in court. They said that the cases were very rewarding and the clients were very cooperative, so I called Floyd Pnewski, the executive director, to sign up.
What is the most rewarding part about being a Judicare panel attorney?
Being able to help clients. Almost all the clients Anoka Judicare sends are in need of legal help and would not otherwise be able to have legal representation. Also, I meet a variety of people and learn about their experiences, and it gives me a very much better grounded perspective on the nature of our community and the people in it. I learn a lot from my clients. For example, I work firsthand with the increasing number of immigrants in my community who are particularly vulnerable.
What advice would you give to attorneys considering becoming a Judicare panel attorney?
The kinds of cases that are available for panel attorneys enable attorneys who may have just started a practice or practiced in another area to acquire a broader case load and knowledge base. The programs are always interested in adding new attorneys to their panel. They need attorneys for bankruptcy and other complicated cases.
What is the greatest challenge of being a Judicare panel attorney?
Being able to help people who are not familiar with the law and sometimes unable to fully communicate their problem. Sometimes it is difficult to find enough monetary relief for case-related services that that are not covered by the indigent fee waiver process. You can attempt to have filing fees waived, but when it comes to costs of litigation like transcript requests, expert witnesses, court reporters, and huge discovery fees, clients are often at a loss. The Judicare program usually pays for a translation service.
What is the most memorable Judicare case you can remember?
Just about every case where we help a tenant retain housing in the face of eviction is memorable. However, one family law custody case has been very gratifying for me. Judicare sent me a matter involving two young parents both seeking custody of their minor child, who had been raised by his great-grandmother since birth. Both parents and available grandparents had been struggling with drug use and living in unstable households. I helped the great-grandmother to intervene to seek custody of the child. She had very limited means, her own husband of many years having passed away, but she had developed an extremely strong network of friends, neighbors, and professionals who stood by her and the child. Eventually, all of her hard work in raising the child in a stable environment helped her to win custody of the child after a number of days of trial.
1 2012 Minnesota Legal Services Coalition Turndown Study
2 2013 MARS Data and 2013 ACS Census Data
4 Michael A. Millemann, “Diversifying the Delivery of Legal Services to the Poor by Adding a Reduced Fee Private Attorney Component to the Predominantly Staff Model, Including Through a Judicare Program,” 7 U. Md. L. J. Race Religion, Gender & Class 227, footnote 1 (2007), citing Larry. R. Spain, The Opportunities and Challenges of Providing Equal Access to Justice in Rural Communities, 28 Wm. Mitchell L. Rev. 367, 377-378 (2001).
5 Herrera, Luz E. “Rethinking Private Attorney Involvement Through a ‘Low Bono’ Lens,” 43 Loy. L.A. L. Rev. 1, 15-21 (2009); Andrea J. Saltzman, “Private Bar Delivery of Civil Legal Services to the Poor: A Design for a Combined Private Attorney and Staffed Office Delivery System,” 34 Hastings L.J. 1165, 1166-1170 (1983).
6 Minnesota Legal Services Advisory Committee data, 2014. In addition to the programs mentioned in the article, smaller Judicare programs also exist in Koochiching County through Legal Aid Services of Northeastern Minnesota and for immigration cases outside of the metro area through Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services.