Administration Has Duty to Provide Legal Aid to Students

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This article is part of the Review’s Student Senate column. In an effort to increase communication and transparency, Student Senators will provide personal perspectives on recent events on campus and in the community.

When Student Senate first included questions about legal aid in our spring 2016 referendum, we found that about one in seven students has required some form of legal assistance during their time at Oberlin. Given that even “minor” legal issues can have a devastating impact on a student’s academic performance and mental health, this data gave us senators cause for concern. For a few years now, Student Senate has advocated for the establishment of a student legal aid office at Oberlin to account for this largely unseen hindrance to student success.

Currently, there are about 350 colleges nationwide that offer some form of legal aid. The push for student legal services began in the 1960s as part of the larger students’ rights movement. Since then, the scope of student legal aid has expanded dramatically because of the changing demographics of college campuses. Student bodies have diversified by almost every metric, and with these changes comes a wider range of legal needs.

As it stands, Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo has maintained a referral list of attorneys in the Northeast Ohio region for students seeking counsel. While this is certainly helpful, we want to build on this work to create a more accessible model for actual legal services on campus. Because of the lack of reliable transportation to anywhere outside the city of Oberlin, as well as the considerable financial barriers to obtaining legal assistance, we believe it is the responsibility of the college administration to provide such services where they are lacking, for both ethical and practical reasons.

Typical services that these offices cover at other schools include landlord-tenant disputes, criminal misdemeanor cases, representation in county courts, uncontested domestic matters — such as legal name changes — document drafting and review, and notary services. The greatest benefit of student legal aid offices is that they operate using a financially accessible model that costs significantly less than seeking counsel on one’s own. Students usually pay a semesterly fee as part of their tuition with the ability to opt-out if they so choose. For example, the fees at Ohio University, Bowling Green State University, and Kent State University are $12, $9, and $10, respectively, per semester.

Another advantage to a legal aid office is that it can help improve the relationship between the College and greater Lorain County community. Such offices frequently hire and rely on local attorneys, and they establish working relationships with local bar associations. This would also be an ideal opportunity for students enrolled in the College’s Law Scholars Program to gain meaningful work experience as part of the curriculum.

Oberlin is an institution that prides itself on its legacy of social justice, diversity, and inclusion, and we believe that legal aid is a significant, tangible, and productive way that we can further that mission.

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