PORTLAND — In an attempt to fill a gap for low-income Mainers who have difficulty accessing legal help, the Volunteer Lawyers Project is launching a new digital service.
Called Free Legal Answers Maine, the service is designed to function as a virtual legal clinic where those who qualify can post legal questions to a website where volunteer lawyers will respond with information or advice.
No criminal law help will be given through Free Legal Answers, but users will be able to submit questions on a wide variety of civil issues from landlord-tenant to child support to disability benefits.
Juliet Holmes-Smith, executive director of the Volunteer Lawyers Project, said Free Legal Answers Maine is part of a nationwide effort by the American Bar Association to use technology to expand access to much-needed legal services.
A kick-off event for Free Legal Answers Maine was planned Tuesday at the Portland Public Library. A second event is planned Thursday in Bangor.
Pro-bono, or free, legal services have traditionally been offered through walk-in clinics where attorneys staff a desk for a set number of hours at a specified location, the Volunteer Lawyers Project said.
However, traveling to a walk-in clinic during these limited hours can be challenging in a rural state like Maine. That’s where the internet offers a solution, according to Holmes-Smith.
“Not only will this service expand access to legal (assistance), but it will also help lawyers by giving them a more convenient, flexible option for performing pro-bono work,” she said.
Holmes-Smith said the Free Legal Answers program will also help the Volunteer Lawyers Project to triage cases, while better matching clients who need extended representation with available volunteer lawyers nearby.
“We are excited to be able to offer this new service that brings more access to justice for people with low incomes,” she said.
Holmes-Smith said users of the Free Legal Answers service must go through the same vetting in terms of their income eligibility, but will then be able to post their legal questions from anywhere at anytime.
The user would then get an email alert when their question receives a response from a pre-authorized volunteer attorney. All the questions and answers are stored privately with no public access, so users can be assured of confidentiality.
Currently, “Maine legal aid providers can only help around 25 percent of people who ask for (help),” Holmes-Smith said.
“While this new service is not the same as providing full representation, experience in other states has shown that many people are (still) able to get meaningful help through Free Legal Answers.”
Holmes-Smith acknowledged that low-income, rural Mainers may not have access to high-speed internet from home.
That’s why the Volunteer Lawyers Project is working with libraries across the state to make Free Legal Answers available to their patrons, she said.
“This type of access can (often) be better than phone intake for many low-income people, who tend to have limited phone minutes,” Holmes-Smith added.
What’s great about Free Legal Answers, she said, is that it gives clients “direct access for having their questions answered by a lawyer.” It also allows them to more easily follow up.
Along with providing better opportunities to access legal aid for clients, Holmes-Smith said Free Legal Answers is also good for the lawyers involved.
“Lawyers often have very busy schedules and may not be able to provide pro-bono help at a clinic or take on more than one pro-bono case at a time,” she said.
But with Free Legal Answers, “Once a lawyer registers, they can log on and answer questions anywhere or anytime.” And there’s no time limit, unlike at the walk-in clinics where clients typically only get a half-hour of assistance.
The service also allows the Volunteer Lawyers Project to send out weekly reminders to participating attorneys to check the site for questions.
Holmes-Smith said 50 percent of the cases handled by the Volunteer Lawyers Project are for family law issues, “after that we get requests for help with bankruptcy and debt, employment issues, legal issues when a family member passes away (and) disability benefits.”
To better advertise Free Legal Answers Maine, Holmes-Smith said cards and posters will go up at courthouses and in libraries all over Maine in the coming weeks.