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With no lawyers for miles in parts of rural Ohio, new program pushes for improved access

Legal Gavel & Closed Law Book

The Ohio Access to Justice Foundation has set up a program aimed at getting more lawyers into underserved communities. Young attorneys just starting out could get a significant amount of their student loans repaid.

To find out more about the program and why it’s needed, WYSO’s Jerry Kenney spoke with Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Justice Kennedy: Hypothetically, you have been charged with a crime. You don't have the means to retain a counsel from another county, and there are not enough lawyers who are willing to do court appointed work or public defenders.

As a result of that, your right to protect your constitutional rights is in jeopardy.

If you have an eviction case, or employment benefits, if you have a contract. — I think of the modern-day farmer and the multitude of business transactions that they engage, whether that's property rights, environmental work, whether you look at contracts or land use issues, whether you look at worker's compensation, all of those touch the legal field. So if you really look at a true agricultural lawyer, they have a multitude of 20 different hats of experience or expertise.

But it really comes down to knowing lawyers who are aging and closing up their practice. There isn't a young person there to do that probate work or domestic relations work or custody rights in juvenile court.

These are significant issues that affect everyone's daily life. And if you believe that the Ohio Constitution, Article One, Section 16, that all courts shall be open and every person for an injury done to him in his land, goods, person or reputation shall have a remedy by due course of law and shall have justice administered without delay or denial, the ability to retain counsel is chief among that access to justice.

So if you think about it and you think about those counties, we're approaching 12 million in population. We are looking at 6.5 million residents — or Ohioans in 82 counties — that are living in underserved populations. So one half of your population is in an underserved community. That gap in access to justice, I think, is hardest hit in rural Ohio.

Three quarters of lawyers — 75% of lawyers — are practicing in only those six largest counties.

Jerry Kenney: You're asking to commit three years of service to a community as a prosecutor, public defender, or court appointed attorney. What kind of buy-in have you seen, or do you expect, on this program?

Justice Kennedy: Every day we get updated numbers about how many have applied. I think the Ohio Department of Education had 29 people so far who've applied, and others who have applied but they're eligible or already enrolled in a different loan repayment program. You're only allowed to be enrolled in one. As a result of that they have these metrics.

So I received this email on February 5th. They had 39 applications, 37 from licensed attorneys, 16 appear to be eligible and 17 are ineligible because they're enrolled in another payment loan program. Four have incomplete applications.

But there's still time for them to meet that March 15 deadline.

Kenney: So how do you to determine where these new lawyers and law services would be disbursed?

Justice Kennedy: So that really comes down to the Ohio Department of Education and their eligibility standards.

They're looking at a minimum of three years of service, $10,000 a year for that certain number of years of practice. And you have to do one of the afflicted counties, so they can do it in any of those counties. Hypothetically, a lawyer with less than eight years of service. And I sign up for the program and I say I'm willing to take cases in Brown, Adam, Scioto, because I live out in Southeast Ohio, and I'm willing to go to any of those counties. They could practice law in any of those counties, take on any of those cases, and that would be credit for the loan program.

Kenney: We've been speaking with Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Sharon Kennedy. Thank you so much for the time and the information today.

Justice Kennedy: Thank you so much for your time, Jerry. I really appreciate it. And thanks to your listeners.


Jerry began volunteering at WYSO in 1991 and hosting Sunday night's Alpha Rhythms in 1992. He joined the YSO staff in 2007 as Morning Edition Host, then All Things Considered. He's hosted Sunday morning's WYSO Weekend since 2008 and produced several radio dramas and specials . In 2009 Jerry received the Best Feature award from Public Radio News Directors Inc., and was named the 2023 winner of the Ohio Associated Press Media Editors Best Anchor/News Host award. His current, heart-felt projects include the occasional series Bulletin Board Diaries, which focuses on local, old-school advertisers and small business owners. He has also returned as the co-host Alpha Rhythms.