Place Category: Specialized Court Projects
- NAVAJO NATION DNA PEOPLE’S LEGAL SERVICES
- PROGRAM DESCRIPTION
- PLANNING & IMPLEMENTATION
- PROGRAM OUTCOMES
Summary: DNA People’s Legal Services provides free, culturally appropriate, civil legal services in tribal, state and federal courts to qualifying low-income residents living in geographically isolated portions of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. DNA is an acronym for a Navajo phrase that translates to “attorneys who work for the revitalization of the People”. Our work upholds the nation’s ideal of “justice for all”.
DNA focuses on helping the most vulnerable members of our communities – low-income families, elders, and victims of abuse, exploitation and discrimination, and especially people in these groups who don’t speak English well. Most clients live below the federal poverty level, although we assist victims of domestic violence regardless of income. Annually, DNA attorneys helps thousands of people to access the justice system to secure safety and financial stability, and maintain dignity in their lives.
Navajo Nation, also services Hopi, Havasupai, Hualapai, San Juan Southern Paiute, Kaibab Paiute, and Jicarilla Apache Tribes
DNA People’s Legal Services (“DNA”)
Program Running Length:
1967 – Present
Rodolfo D. Sanchez, Executive Director
Phone number: (928) 871-4151
Fax number (928) 871-5036
DNA People’s Legal Services
P.O. Box 306
Window Rock, AZ 86515
DNA People’s Legal Services serves portions of Northeastern Arizona, Northern New Mexico and Southeastern Utah. It serves Coconino, Northern Apache and Northern Navajo Counties in Arizona, San Juan and Rio Arriba Counties in New Mexico, and Navajo Nation residents in San Juan County, Utah. DNA has its administrative headquarters in Window Rock, Navajo Nation and additional offices in Chinle, Keams Canyon, Tuba City, Window Rock and Flagstaff (Arizona), and Farmington (New Mexico).
The area in which DNA provides its services to seven tribes over 50,100 square miles across Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.
More than 250,000 people live in the service area covered by DNA.
DNA helps people living in poverty to use the justice system, policies, and laws to protect their property and assets, stay safe from physical, mental and financial abuse, avoid exploitation, and safeguard their civil rights.DNA serves qualifying low-income individuals within the agency’s catchment area, including those who live both on and off reservation.DNA was established in 1967 with funding from the Office of Economic Opportunity.The goal of the project was to remedy the lack of legal services on the Navajo Nation and prevent and respond to the exploitation of members of the Navajo Nation. From its early years, DNA was active in pursuing precedent-setting cases on behalf of its clients. One of the agency’s first well-known cases was McClanahan v. Arizona State Tax Commission, 411 U.S. 164 (1973). In that case, the Supreme Court held that Arizona did not have jurisdiction to impose a tax on the income of members of the Navajo Nation residing on Navajo lands, and whose income was wholly derived from Navajo Nation sources.
In 1974, when Congress passed the Legal Services Corporation Act, DNA integrated with that system and continues to be funded, in part, by the Legal Services Corporation today.In the mid-1980s, DNA opened an office on the Hopi Reservation, although services had been provided to Hopi people prior. The opening of this office was the first in a series of expansions that has seen DNA grow significantly. The next expansion occurred inthe late 1990s, when DNA inherited several local legal aid services. The first of these was Coconino County Legal Aid, which provided legal aid services to clients in the Flagstaff area. Other services that have been incorporated include legal aid services at Kingman and Grand Canyon. It now provides legal aid services to several Tribes over a large area of the American Southwest.
More recently, DNA has also contracted with several of the Tribes, including the Kaibab Paiute, the Hopi and the Jicarilla Apache, to provide additional services including public defense lawyers and criminal code review.DNA’s name is an acronym for the Navajo phrase ‘Dinébe’iináNáhiiłna be Agha’diit’ahii,’ meaning ‘attorneys who work for the revitalization of The People.’ In keeping with this mission, DNA’s mission is to serve its client communities as advocates and teachers in order to address the causes and symptoms of poverty, foster individual independence and dignity, and promote tribal sovereignty. The services provided by DNA are designed to help clients develop the resources necessary to meet external challenges and help off-reservation communities and businesses better understand DNA’s clients and respect their rights.
DNA sees part of its role as developing understanding of Navajo law and the principle of k’é, or kinship. To do this, DNA seeks to develop case law in the Navajo Supreme Court that reflectsk’é, as well as integrating k’é into its internal policies. DNA’s philosophy was described by its Executive Director as ‘dealing with the acorn, rather than the oak tree.’ In focusing on the acorn, DNA seeks to address the core problem and underlying issues of its clients. In doing so, it hopes to chip away at the ‘oak tree,’ the other problems that grow out of the underlying issue.General legal services provided on reservation: DNA has several offices thatprovide civil legal services to the Navajo Nation, Jicarilla Apache, Hualapai, Havasupai, San Juan Southern Paiute, Kaibab Paiute, and Hopi communities.
General legal services provided off reservation:DNA also provides civil legal services at off-reservation locations in Farmington and Flagstaff.
Hopi Public Defender program: DNA contracts with the Hopi Tribe to provide State-licensed public defense attorneys in their Tribal Court system.DNA has approximately 50 staff, and is led by an Executive Director who reports to a 21 member Board of Directors. Offices are staffed by attorneys, tribal court advocates, and support staff such as legal secretaries and office managers. Each office is supervised by a Managing Attorney.People apply for and receive services from offices in Window Rock, Chinle, and Tuba City (Navajo Nation), Keams Canyon (Hopi), Flagstaff (AZ), and Farmington (NM). Offices are staffed by attorneys and tribal court advocates, paralegals and
DNA receives funding from the Legal Services Corporation and must follow federal regulations and guidelines in our eligibility assessment process. Each applicant’s situation is unique and individual factors determine eligibility. It is impossible to list all eligibility criteria, since factors that affect eligibility are unique to each individual’s circumstances. So we encourage people to apply and allow our intake staff to walk through the entire eligibility process. Generally, we can serve people with incomes at or below 125% of the federal poverty level. In some situations we can make exceptions that allow us to serve people up to 200%, and we can serve victims of domestic violence regardless of income. If a potential client has significant medical expenses, however, he or she may still be eligible to receive legal assistance from DNA even if their income exceeds 125% of the Federal Poverty Level. The Executive Director must approve the acceptance of the case each time one of these exceptions is invoked.
Following professional standards of conduct, we cannot serve anyone if there is a conflict of interest for our attorneys, even if the applicant is income eligible for services.
After DNA has determined that a potential client is eligible to receive assistance, the case must be reviewed and approvedby DNA’s litigators at a ‘case acceptance meeting’. The litigators also determine if any other action needs to be taken by the potential client before the case can be accepted.
If immediate action is needed, the case may be accepted as an ‘emergency case’ without approval at a case acceptance meeting. For example, eviction or foreclosure matters may be accepted as an emergency case if, without immediate action, the person would be evicted or lose their home.
Most clients are walk-ins, though DNA conducts telephone intake and interviews when distance or other factors make it too difficult for an applicant to get to a DNA office. The referral process varies by office, and is influenced by the needs of and DNA’s relationships with, local agencies in their communities.Most offices have referral protocols with shelters, housing assistance entities, healthcare clinics, and other human services agencies. Courts frequently refer clients.
Supervision and Compliance:
DNA conducts periodic legal needs assessments in the communities we serve, and uses the information to assign issues priorities that are approved annually by DNA’s Board of Directors.
Responsibility for compliance with DNA’s mission and state/tribal laws rests with the Executive Director, who coordinates with DNA’s Compliance Coordinator, Finance Director, and the Board of Directors. Numerous mechanisms exist within DNA’s administrative and service delivery structures to ensure compliance.
Supervision of legal work happens at the office level by a Managing Attorney, at the state/tribal level by an experienced Senior Attorney who is licensed in Navajo, AZ, or NM, and DNA-wide by a Director of Litigation.
The level of legal assistance that DNA provides depends on the unique circumstances of each client’s case. Attorneys have the discretion to provide services that best meet the needs of a client, with services ranging from advice to full representation in court or before judges within administrative agencies. There is no specific or pre-determined termination criteria for closing a client’s case or terminating DNA’s engagement.DNA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit legal aid organization, funded primarily by grants from federal, state, and private sources. The vast majority of DNA’s annual revenue comes from the Legal Services Corporation.DNA does not receive any specialized technical assistance.National Association of Indian Legal Services (NAILS): DNA is part of NAILS, which is the National Association of Indian Legal Services providers. NAILS aims to facilitate the sharing of information among its members. Membership in NAILS has allowed DNA to find partners to collaborate with when designing and implementing special projects.
Other legal aid organizations: DNA has collaborative relationships with other local legal aid organizations, such as Southern Arizona Legal Aid, Community Legal Services and New Mexico Legal Aid. These relationships give DNA access to the knowledge and experience of other legal aid practitioners, which has been valuable in providing formal training programs, mentorships for young DNA lawyers, and informal advice to DNA staff members.The majority of DNA’s clients, staff and board of directors are Native American, and ethnic and cultural identification with our clients and the communities where they live is one of DNA’s most valuable assets.
See Community Response section too.The importance of educating potential clients: In DNA’s experience, an important first step in establishing a successful program has been to educate potential clients about the services it provides and what the program is designed to achieve. In DNA’s experience, without education, it is difficult for the program to achieve its goals and reach all potential clients.
Findingfunding: DNA has found that applying for funding is a highly competitive process. Having a Development Officer to navigate the funding process and lead funding efforts has been of great benefit to DNA.
Educating non-Native staff members: It has been important for DNA to educate non-Native staff members about appropriate etiquette and means of communication with DNA clients. This has been achieved, in part, through a new staff orientation program. In addition, new staff members are encouraged to ask questions ofother staff members, using them as a valuable resource. It has also been important to educate new staff members, who are often from urban areas, about life in DNA’s area of operation. This often involves tips as simple as not picking up hitchhikers, and the importance ofhaving emergency supplies, such as water and a flashlight, when travelling from office to office.In the 50,100 square mile area served by DNA, there are approximately 100,000 people eligible for DNA services. Each year, DNA provides approximately 4,000 people with direct legal services and over 100,000 people with programs targeted at educating clients and community members about various legal issues.DNA defines success as: ensuring that eligible clients receive the legal services they need;positive results are achieved for those clients; and clients feel happy and content with the outcomes of their cases. In addition, DNA strives to actively contribute to the Navajo legal community in the following ways:
Developing Navajo common law: When bringing suits in the Navajo Supreme Court, DNA emphasizes Navajo law and the principle of k’é. In doing so, DNA has contributed to the push to develop Navajo common law consistently with k’é.
Assisting in law reform efforts: DNA has been heavily involved in law reform efforts since being established, and has played a role in a large number of cases that have set significant precedents relating to federal Indian law. In addition, DNA engages in advocacy on behalf of its clients’ interests to influence legislative reform.
Legal resource development: DNA has provided a useful training ground for lawyers who have gone on to serve the Tribes in other capacities. For example, around 70-90 percent of Navajo Tribal Courtjudges are former DNA employees. This includes the current Chief Justice and Associate Justice of the Navajo Supreme Court.Since the early years, DNA’s administration, office staff, and Board of Directors have solicited input from Navajo tribal members who represent each of the 110 Navajo Chapters and 5 Agencies (units of local government similar to counties and states). Called “community representatives”, these tribal members are elected by or chosen by their own communities, and meet with DNA at least once per year to give feedback about the challenges and needs facing their communities. This process honors a long-standing cultural tradition of face-to-face dialogue and participation by Navajos in community-based.
DNA’s presence in communities, and staff who are Native American and live where they work, ensures DNA is well-received and well-known in the communities we serve. And, for decades, DNA’s Community Legal Education Coordinator traveled to dozens of Navajo communities each year to provide legal information about legal issues that affected many people, but still were not well-known. The program’s aim was to inform residents so they could protect themselves and prevent legal issues before they happened.An early success was an action brought by DNA on behalf of prisoners being held in very poor conditions in Chinle. That case led to a consent decree that set requirements for prisoner capacity management on the Navajo Nation. The consent decree required, for example, that all prisoners be screened for medical problems, to ensure that high risk individuals receive the care and services they need.
More recently, DNA initiated a successful lawsuit against an employer who had illegally garnished the client’s wages to pay off a debt, and won the employee wages and damages.No documents to upload.
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