2005 LEGAL NEEDS ASSESSMENT 

 

Southern Arizona Legal Aid, (SALA), prioritizes services based upon the civil legal needs of the low-income populations in its service area.  SALA conducted it last comprehensive legal needs assessment in 2004.  The needs assessment is to determine the unmet civil legal needs of low-income individuals and families within SALA's service area.  The Assessment commenced in January, 2004, was completed and reviewed by SALA's Board of Directors' Priorities Committee and approved by the full Board in January, 2005.

Process for Conducting the Assessment

SALA's Board of Directors established guidelines for the assessment and the Board's Priorities Committee coordinated and reviewed the results. The assessment utilized focus groups, former clients, staff, Board, judiciary and community organization surveys.  In addition, opinion leader interviews were conducted.  Census, demographic data for SALA's service area and SALA's Case Statistical Reports (CSR) were analyzed.

The assessment covered the following subject areas: housing, home ownership, domestic violence/personal safety, utilities, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), Health Care/Medicare, mental health, medical bills, Social Security benefits, employment, education, Limited English proficiency, immigration and other issues.

Results of the Assessment

The Assessment concluded that Arizona is the second fastest growing state in the United States.  According to the Arizona Department of Economic Security's 2005 census, there are 1,751,015 persons residing in SALA's service areas.  The poverty rate for Arizona is 14.2 percent. The poverty rate for families residing on reservations within SALA's service areas is approximately 40 percent.  Both the State of Arizona and reservation poverty rates are significantly higher than the nation's 2005 poverty rate of 12.7 percent.

Because SALA's service area is a mixture of urban and rural communities, the increase in population has resulted in increased competition for limited resources.  As a result, the lack of affordable, decent and safe housing continues to be problematic for our clients.  Due to predatory lending and cyclical employment, mortgage foreclosures are on the rise.  The Assessment revealed that residents in SALA's service areas continue to experience difficulty locating and maintaining access to affordable decent and safe housing.

Former clients and social services providers all reported the need for legal services in the area of domestic violence prevention and personal safety.  Undocumented immigrants were reported to be a highly vulnerable group because, while victims of domestic violence and crime, they may not feel they can turn to the authorities for protection due to fear of deportation.

The Needs Assessment revealed that low-income residents experience difficulties maintaining health care coverage and paying health related expenses.  Due to the limited English proficiency of southern Arizona's immigrant population, and uncertainty about immigration laws and regulations, access to public benefits such as TANF, and Social Security and health benefits continue to be a critical need.

Conclusions

SALA's Priorities Committee concluded that:

1)  Current substantive case priorities are consistent with the critical needs as expressed by the low-income population, social services and community organization, the private bar, and the judiciary;

2)  The increase in population in southern Arizona has resulted in an increase in the demand for services;

3)  Community education programs, designed to teach clients how to protect their interest, are viewed favorably by former clients, social services organizations and our community partners.

Recommendations

Based upon the conclusions, the Priorities Committee recommended little change to SALA's substantive Case Priorities and that SALA maintain and identify ways to expand its community education programs.  The Priorities as approved by the Board are below.

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Statement of Priorities

SALA recognizes that its eligible clients cannot otherwise afford adequate legal counsel, and that the legal services program is vital. SALA is committed to serving eligible clients throughout its service area, with equal access for all.

SALA’s resources are limited. In compliance with LSC statutes and regulations, and standards of professional ethics, endeavoring to maintain a high level of professionalism, quality, and effectiveness in the delivery of legal services, SALA adopts the following priorities for accepting cases and matters addressing the most compelling and critical needs of SALA’s eligible clients. These priorities, in no special order of relative importance, are adopted from LSC’s Suggested List of Priorities. They apply to SALA’s entire program, including Native American units, the Volunteer Lawyer Program, and projects operated with non-LSC resources.

Support for Families and Children

The cohesiveness of the family is not only a time-honored value fundamental to our American way of life, but also the undergirding of the stability of our American society. American families are often vulnerable to problems requiring legal assistance for their resolution. SALA places a high priority on those cases in which legal assistance supports the integrity, safety, and well-being of the family.

Access to Justice for Vulnerable

Populations

While SALA focuses prime attention on providing support for families, this cannot be to the exclusion of assistance to individuals living outside a family context. This is particularly true with respect to the growing numbers of elderly individuals in our population who are among the most vulnerable, particularly as their capacity to make independent and informed judgments diminishes. In addition to assurance of access to basic needs of life -- food, shelter, and medical care -- they often require remedies against the unscrupulous who take unfair advantage in their dealings with them.

SALA should also pay particular attention to other similarly vulnerable individuals within its service area who, in addition to being in a marginal economic status, are less capable of fending for themselves by reason of difference in language, cultural and educational backgrounds, disability, or other special problems of access to legal assistance, or special legal needs.

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Affirming and Advocating for Tribal Sovereignty

The Native American Tribes in SALA’s service area are independent sovereign nations. SALA respects and promotes tribal sovereignty.

Defending Criminal Cases in Tribal Court

Liberty, individual rights, and due process are fundamental principles of the American legal system. SALA may provide defender services to eligible tribal members in tribal courts.

Maintaining and Enhancing Economic

Stability

Families must be economically viable in order to survive. SALA gives high priority to cases in which the family's source of income is at risk.

For the working poor, those seeking to avoid dependency and find a route out of poverty, the loss of a job may trigger a plummet into abject poverty, possibly leading to the loss of housing and access to health care, and even to the breakup of the family. The prevention of unemployment may obviate a sequence of far greater legal activity, and should therefore be a high priority for SALA. In addition to matters directly involving employment law, other cases may fall into the category of potentially preventing joblessness, for example, consumer cases relating to the tools of a worker's trade or to an automobile which is needed to transport the worker to the site of the job. A category of the working poor whose legal needs should not be overlooked in setting priorities are family farmers, who are especially vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and markets.

SALA gives a high priority to cases involving parental responsibility for the support of their children. In light of legislative attention to this issue, the rate of success in obtaining child support from absent parents makes such representation an ever more efficient and cost-effective use of legal time.

For workers who have lost their jobs or become disabled or those who are otherwise unable to obtain employment, representation in cases involving eligibility for benefits to which they have a claim may be the only way to preserve a source of income for the family.

Other legal matters may threaten basic economic stability and therefore merit high priority. For example, a family entrapped by a fraudulent scheme may be forced into bankruptcy if it has no recourse to legal assistance.

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Preserving the Home and Related Housing Needs

Preservation of the home is essential to the well-being of every person. The loss of housing through uninhabitability, eviction, or foreclosure can precipitate exposure to physical and medical risks in crowded shelters or the streets, disruption of the schooling of young children, loss of employment, and the splintering of families whose members may be dispersed in seeking alternate shelter. Enabling families to avoid loss of their home is an important priority for SALA, as is assistance to those families or individuals who have become homeless.

Of equal importance is the assurance that families can be safe and secure in their places of residence. This is of particular concern in public housing complexes where crime and violent behavior put many families at risk. Legal assistance to tenant associations or other groups of eligible clients seeking to ameliorate the condition of a dangerous environment contributes to family well-being and is a priority where appropriate. SALA gives a high priority to representation of individual families threatened by unsafe or unhealthy conditions in both public and private rental housing.

Help may also be needed when physical harm to family living quarters is caused by natural disaster, such as flood, earthquake, fire, and hurricane. SALA will respond to the needs of clients in such emergencies and, when appropriate, to cooperate in joint endeavors with the federal emergency management agency. Funds may be available through special appropriations, which SALA can use to provide emergency services to clients in matters such as relocation, repair of housing, filing for benefits, and dealing with insurance, contractors, and creditors.

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Safety, Stability, and Health Care

Domestic violence threatens the security and stability of families at all economic levels. The physical abuse of women, frequently mothers of children in the household, as well as neglect and harm to children themselves, calls for heightened awareness and a fast response by the justice system. The intervention of legal service lawyers in obtaining judicial remedies, such as orders of protection, can be life-saving. SALA endeavors to offer that vital assistance.

Representation in legal separation or divorce may also be essential to sustain what remains of a viable family structure, especially as it relates to regularization or clarification of the custody of children. SALA should also consider representation where dissolution of the marital relationship is the result of abandonment or other compelling circumstances, applying its own assessment of priorities to take cognizance of the exigencies of each situation.

Representation in cases involving access to health care may also be essential to preserve the security and stability of families, and are accorded an appropriate priority.

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Economic Development

When communities are without employment opportunities, decent and safe homes, schools and parks the cycle of poverty can become perpetual. In order to help improve communities where the poor reside, SALA attorneys may engage in community economic development activities to help improve neighborhoods and communities. 

Preservation and Defense of Fundamental Rights

The poor are often vulnerable to the violation of their fundamental rights at the hands of the more powerful. In a case or matter which meets SALA’s other priorities, violation or the threat of violation of an eligible client’s fundamental rights gives it a high priority.

SALA preserves and defends fundamental rights in and out of court, including state, federal, and tribal courts, and administrative tribunals. The issue, the consequences of loss, and recognition by legislatures and courts help define what is a fundamental right. For example, proof of identity or citizenship, or membership in a tribal community, confirms an eligible client’s rights to critical services and benefits. Proof of paternity or maternity preserves family relationships. Protection of a victim of domestic violence protects the right to safety and physical integrity.

SALA endeavors to protect fundamental rights, including traditional freedoms such as freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right of association, the right to vote, the right to redress grievances, and other fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

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Delivery of Legal Services

Apart from the focus on substantive issues or client populations, SALA gives attention to  matters relating to the nature or method of delivery of legal services. Limited funding will necessarily cause SALA to turn away a number of eligible clients needing assistance. SALA gives priority to considering methods by which it can stretch its resources in an effort to compensate in part for its limited funding.

To this end, SALA makes maximum use of available technology in screening, researching and responding to client needs, and endeavors to raise funds for this purpose. Computerized networks can facilitate referrals and brief service and result in more efficient use of lawyer time. Similarly, community legal education, pro se representation and other forms of self-help can reduce the need for legal intervention, enabling SALA to conserve its resources for matters most requiring a lawyer's help.

SALA places a high priority on activities designed to involve the entire community in sharing the responsibility for facilitating access to justice. Special attention should be accorded to the involvement of the private bar in the provision of pro bono client representation.

In addition to pro bono representation, the private bar can provide assistance in relevant substantive areas of law, training for staff and volunteers, and both direct financial support and assistance with fund-raising. Law schools and other law-related entities can also make unique contributions. The community at large, including clients, religious and civic groups, community service agencies, business enterprises, and organizations, should also be included in efforts to broaden SALA’s outreach effort.


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© 2004 Southern Arizona Legal Aid