Student Legal Services (SLS), which would provide free or reduced-price legal consultation to students and would educate the student body of its rights on and off campus, is SGA’s latest initiative at JMU.
Student Body President Dela Adedze first proposed this initiative to Vice President for Student Affairs Tim Miller in March 2020, and in September 2020 the SGA resolution was introduced. He has the approval of President Jonathan Alger, who Adedza said told him he loves the idea, as well as Board of Visitors member Christopher Falcon.
“We definitely had a lot of administrative support as well as introduced it to faculty members who like the idea,” Adedze said. “It’s just been moving a little bit slowly.”
On Jan. 26, SGA sent out an email with more information and a link to a survey in order to “assess student legal service needs and how we can address them.” As of Feb. 9, the survey had 493 responses.
The survey asked if students would benefit from the program, with the options consisting of “benefit a lot,” “benefit somewhat,” or “would not benefit.” The responses showed that 81.63% of respondents thought students would benefit a lot from this program. When asked how easy it was for JMU students to access legal services, 49.18% said legal services aren’t accessible for students.
The survey, which Student Body Vice President Ryan Ritter helped to write, explained that consultation and aid could include — but isn’t limited to — issues regarding leases, criminal charges, traffic violations, contracts, employment, consumer issues and immigration.
“Legal representation is one of the most expensive things that’s out there,” Ritter said. “Having a one-stop shop where you can get free or incredibly reduced-price legal consultation would be very helpful.”
SLS programs are active at over 300 campuses nationwide, including Virginia Tech, William & Mary and University of Virginia. Adedze said this program is mostly available at schools with law schools, but Virginia Tech has made the program work since 1982 despite not having a law program.
“The cool thing about Virginia Tech’s model is that this is available through their student activities fee that students at Blackburg’s campus pay, so they pay an estimated $2-3 in their fee,” Adedze said. “With us, I would like it to be under our student activities fee as well.”
In the survey, 45.92% said they’d accept a slight increase in student fees to support the program, 43.06% said they needed more information, 9.8% said no, and 1.2% chose other, leaving responses of their opinion.
In one of the responses on the survey, one student commented, “The school blows so much of our money on things students don’t want. Redirect money into this.” Another responded similarly, commenting, “Or you could just get rid of one of the other useless programs here at JMU first, instead of adding on money no matter how little.”
SGA advisor and Associate Director for the Center for Civic Engagement Carah Whaley said she thinks it’s an “absolutely valid point” to want the money to fund the program to come from somewhere else. However, it raises the question of where it’ll come from and who’ll make that decision.
“Other universities in Virginia, but also across the country, incorporate students into budget decision-making far more, whereas JMU students don’t really have a lot of say in budget decisions at JMU,” Whaley said. “This process has continued to raise questions about the role of students in governments and the importance that students have of a voice in making decisions and how they should be included.”
Ritter said the administration wants to see more student input before it makes any kind of decision, so the more responses to the survey, the better.
“I think JMU as an administration is focused on improving other programs at our university,” Adedze said. “Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but this is just another thing on the agenda that we should push for.”
CORRECTION (Feb. 11. 3:33 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated that students at JMU pay a student fee of $816 annually. Students at JMU actually pay $5,080 in student fees.
Contact Eda Tercan at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.