Washington, DC— To improve access to civil legal assistance for low-income Americans, the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has awarded new technology grants to develop online intake systems; to enhance access to web-based resources for Spanish-speaking, limited English proficient clients; and to expand StatesideLegal.org, a website that provides information and resources to veterans and military families.
Through itsTechnology Initiative Grants (TIG) program for 2011, LSC awarded 37 grants totaling more than $3.6 million. The TIG grants went to LSC-funded programs in 25 states.
LSC President James J. Sandman, who announced the TIG awards, said the Corporation seeks “to promote innovation in the delivery of legal services and to serve as many people as possible. Self-help forms and online information assist people in navigating the legal system and enhance access to practical, useful resources.”
From TIG’s start in 2000 to the present, LSC has awarded $39.7 million to spur innovation and efficiency through the use of technology. TIG has helped fund a nationwide network of state websites that provide free legal information and connect low-income Americans to local legal aid programs. Millions of Americans also are provided with self-help information and court forms through the websites.
LSC-funded programs are overwhelmed with requests for civil legal assistance, in part because of the economy. Courts—especially housing and family courts—have seen an increase in the number of low-income individuals without a lawyer. Studies in several states have found that about 80 percent of the legal needs of low-income families go unmet.
The systems that LSC-funded programs use to conduct client intake—most often telephone hotlines and in-person interviews—are often swamped by requests for legal services, frustrating clients and programs. The new round of technology grants continue efforts to develop new, user-friendly online intake systems for clients who need alternatives that permit the filing of applications for legal assistance outside normal business hours.
“Web-based application and intake systems are available around the clock, and online systems especially provide an alternative for people who live in rural areas,” Glenn Rawdon, who heads the TIG program at LSC, said.
Six LSC-funded programs were awarded TIG funds to develop online intake systems. For example, the Land of Lincoln Assistance Foundation and partners will develop a “Statewide Online Access System,” which will serve as a portal to the Illinois legal services delivery system. The project calls for a module to direct website visitors to the most appropriate resources for their legal problem and a module to allow eligible, potential clients to apply for legal assistance. The Illinois project will build upon the work of the Northwest Justice Project in Washington state, which developed a pilot system.
The Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York will receive TIG funding to enhance access to legal aid resources for Spanish-speaking, limited English proficient clients nationally and in New York state by developing a Spanish portal for a national website, LawHelp.org; by providing a LiveHelp “chat” connection for Spanish-speaking users; and by developing 10 national online guides to help clients understand the courts, civil legal aid systems, and their language access rights.
In an effort to help people who must navigate courts without a lawyer, Lone Star Legal Aid will undertake a project to merge Texas Law Help, which provides self-help forms, and Texas Courts Online, which offers information about the state court system. The project will create a one-stop, easy-to-understand information source and include Spanish and Vietnamese translations of legal forms.
Colorado Legal Services, Montana Legal Services and Utah Legal Services will join together to create an online screening tool for persons in financial difficulty so that they may determine whether bankruptcy could be an appropriate and beneficial legal solution to their problems and, if so, provide online training to help them complete the bankruptcy process themselves.
StatesideLegal.org, launched in 2010 by Pine Tree Legal Assistance of Maine, will receive additional TIG funding to expand resources for women veterans and service members and to expand web-based collaborations between veterans’ advocates and national experts. In addition, the TIG funds will be used to strengthen StatesideLegal’s overall functioning to handle growing traffic to the site.
TIG has, from its start, identified and supported technologies that can be developed by LSC-funded programs and replicated by others. One example is the new TIG project to be led by the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, in collaboration with LSC programs, non-LSC programs, law schools, bar associations and the judiciary in Massachusetts. The project will develop enhancements to the probono.net template and create a single statewide pro bono website. This new website will make available to the thousands of pro bono practitioners in Massachusetts a single portal where they can find and sign up for pro bono cases and training. The resulting efficiencies should facilitate an increase in pro bono services to low-income clients. Because of the shared nature of the probono.net template, the proposed enhancements will be available at no cost for replication by 22 other probono.net sites across the country.
LSC, established in 1974, is the single largest funder of civil legal services in the nation. The Corporation’s mission is to promote equal access to justice and ensure the delivery of high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income Americans.