Ready, Set, Launch…AmeriCorps in Legal Aid (Montana)

We’re live in Montana! Our collaborators at Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) have worked hard with April Faith-Slaker over the past several months to design an evaluation of their AmeriCorps non-lawyer advocacy program.

This newest evaluation adds a lot of firsts for the A2J Lab: the first study focusing on a primarily rural location, the first official launch in its region, and the first to evaluate the use of this type of non-lawyer advocate. In this case, “non-lawyer advocate” means a trained AmeriCorps member. It could mean a variety of types of trained support short of a J.D.

Currently, there are few avenues for accessing trained support short of an attorney, and the cost of lawyers can be a serious hurdle. This particular study highlights another barrier to accessing counsel: geography. Residents in rural areas often face additional shortages and access obstacles when it comes to locating counsel.

Here’s how the study will work: Over an 18-month period, individuals who contact the Montana Legal Services Association requesting assistance with a parenting plan modification will be entered into a lottery to receive either self-help materials or to receive self-help materials plus assistance from an AmeriCorps member. After a participant has received services, whether materials or materials plus help from an AmeriCorps member, the study team will follow up with both the participants and with the courts to determine whether the participants have been successful in addressing their legal problem. Specifically, we are interested in knowing if and in what cases assistance from AmeriCorps members facilitates better legal and family outcomes.

This project will provide MLSA with rigorous research to inform their decisions about how to use non-lawyer advocates in future. Alison Paul, the Executive Director of MLSA, says, “We are thrilled to be working with the Harvard Access to Justice Lab to investigate what factors will indicate when non-lawyer advocates can make a difference in access to justice for our clients.”

If you’re interested in seeing the complete study design, you can access it on our Open Science Framework page. We’ll share the results here when they’re available.

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