"Escambia Project" Expands Residents' Access To Legal Help

Nov 6, 2017

Credit Florida Bar Foundation

The Escambia Project is an ongoing initiative to provide Escambia residents with greater access to civil justice. It utilizes a unique community approach to developing new legal help services that are accessible and easy to use.

The Escambia Project launched in February of this year, supported by Pathways for Change, Legal Services of North Florida, and the Florida Bar Foundation.

“The Escambia Project really is one of our strategic initiatives to try to do something different, to get justice to people,” said Melissa Moss, deputy director for strategic initiatives for the Florida Bar Foundation, which provides funding and support for legal aid non-profits across the state.

“We know that people who qualify for legal aid at 125 percent of poverty are just barely getting by. They may not have reliable transportation. Who knows when they’re working; they may be working several shifts. They may have childcare issues,” Moss said of the people they’re aiming to assist.

“We also know that folks above 125 percent of poverty can’t afford attorneys, either and have challenges as well.”

Moss was inspired to seek new ways of providing legal services to those in need after attending a national conference and hearing a presentation by Margaret Hagan, Director of the Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School.

“So, my approach to legal services, social services is that when we think about how to be innovative, how to change things for the better, we should be as creative and community driven as possible,” Hagan said.

It’s an all-inclusive, bottom up process that Hagan refers to as “Design Thinking.” It allows the stakeholders to come together to openly share ideas, set an agenda and then brainstorm, with the goal of being as ambitious and creative as possible.

“And then from that process start to winnow down some small pilots to run, some small versions of new ideas that we can test, we can criticize, but that we can kind of get feedback on,” said Hagan.

The data generated will help to determine how and where to spend time and money in the effort to make social services better.

Locally, that process resulted in creation of the Escambia Project.

Hagan says this new way of thinking about how to deliver social and legal services appears to be catching on, pointing to a new level of openness from community leaders to be more democratic and inclusive by actually talking to the people who need and use legal aid services. It’s as simple, she says, as going to the individuals who are trying to get divorced, or trying to deal with traffic tickets, or getting evicted and asking them, ‘What do you want from the system; what would be easier for you to understand; what would be more navigable?”

The answers to such questions are helping to design new legal aid services in an effort to address to the lack of access to the civil justice system.

“The reality with legal aid programs is that if we look at it in hard numbers - about how many lawyers can serve how many people - there aren’t enough legal aid lawyers to serve the number of low income and eligible clients who are in need of services, with the numbers of legal issues that they face,” said Leslie Powell-Boudreax. She know the problem first hand as executive director of Legal Services of North Florida.

The agency has five attorneys serving Escambia and Santa Rosa counties, and three in Okaloosa-Walton.

Studies show such programs are only meeting about 20 percent of the need. Further, according to the American Bar Foundation, 80 percent of people with a civil legal problem never seek assistance, either because they haven’t identified that they have a problem or they’ve just accepted their circumstances.

Leslie Powell-Boudreaux, Margaret Hagan, Connie Bookman, and Melissa Moss represent organizations involved in creating and supporting the Escambia Project.
Credit Maggie McGowan Davis / Florida Bar Foundation

Florida’s Chief Justice Jorge Labarga has established the state Commission on Access to Civil Justice, and Powell-Boudreax is hoping the services now under development via the Escambia Project will also help reach more people in a useful way, with the limited resources available.

“Are there ways we can change our model, make ourselves more efficient, make ourselves more effective in how we’re doing that,” asks Powell-Boudreaxu, “when we know there’s not millions of dollars that are getting ready to come our way to help us find more lawyers to do the work?”

Through the Escambia Project, there are three legal services pilot programs in the works. More attorneys are coming forward to help provide legal services via Justice on The Block, which is a legal aid clinic that takes the services out into the community where people need them. Two such events have been held since August.

Also being developed as a model for the state is the new software tool, Smart Intake, a questionnaire to be used by social service and other providers to identify legal issues.

The third service being piloted locally is “One Stop Life Shop,” which is about coordinating the delivery of legal help with other services, all in one location.

This holistic method of addressing the entirety of an individual’s needs is the same approach at Pathways for Change, says Founder and CEO Connie Bookman.

“You know the frustration of a mom, who might be on probation, and so she needs anger management, she needs parenting, she needs outpatient substance abuse treatment, we offer all that, with free child care,” said Bookman. “So, she can bring her children, she can go to counseling. We even have a child therapist that can help.”

It’s fitting that Pathways for Change has hosted all three of the pilot services within the Escambia Project.

Bookman serves on the Florida Bar Foundation Board of Directors and thought her agency would make a great model for achieving the foundation’s mission of ‘justice for all.’

“It was like ‘Please come to our family center,’” Bookman recalls for her invite to the Foundation’s Melissa Moss. “When we opened in 2012, we had 500 visits that year. This year, we had 6,885 visits serving 594 families.”

Bookman says Pathways for Change is achieving success with the people they serve because it has the right formula for trust and consistency; the same ingredients that the legal aid initiative Escambia Project will need moving forward.