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LawHelp Project Director Testifies at City Council Hearing on Expanding 311 Service to Include Information on Social and Nonprofit Services

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

  • By: Leah Margulies
  • Organization: LawHelp/NY Consortium
  • Source: New York

Testimony of Leah Margulies
Project Director, LawHelp.org/NY

Submitted to New York City Council, Committee on Technology in Government, Hearing:
"Expanding 311 Service to Include Information On Social and Nonprofits Services"

Good Morning,

My name is Leah Margulies and I'm Project Director of LawHelp for New York City and the State of New York. LawHelp.org/NY (www.lawhelp.org/ny) is a powerful, on-line tool for helping low and moderate income New Yorkers solve their legal problems. LawHelp is a one-stop legal information clearinghouse that provides quick and accurate referrals to free civil legal services programs, information and links to social services, advocacy and government organizations, information about the Court system, and most importantly, information about our legal rights.

Every day, thousands of New Yorkers face a wide range of problems whose solution may require some legal intervention. Low-income persons, in particular, face difficult challenges when confronted with legal problems, and may be denied access to justice because of lack of knowledge about their legal rights and about the legal resources available to them. People need answers to questions like, "What do I do if I'm served with an eviction notice? "Where do I go if I need protection from an abusing spouse? Or, "How can I get help to figure out the new Medicare drug rules?" These problems are compounded if the individual in question is an immigrant, not literate in English or has low English proficiency.

And, it's New York's poorest people that face the most daunting barriers in obtaining legal help. Without effective legal counsel and information, low-income people are at risk of eviction, of losing access to entitlements, or may suffer discrimination and other forms of extreme hardship. By helping people find a lawyer, learn about their rights, and provide invaluable information about the court system, LawHelp provides important relief.

If New York's unique 311 system were expanded to include referrals to New York non-profits, thousands of New Yorkers would benefit from a referral to LawHelp. Through this one website, a person can learn about more than more than 200 legal services organizations, including contact information, eligibility requirements and intake information. They can view, link to and download close to 2,000 legal information and self-help resources. And they can find hundreds of social service and advocacy organizations. In 2005, with the help of the NY Community Trust, we developed a "mirror" website in Spanish, and LawHelp currently has resources in 39 languages. Given that Spanish is New York's second language, LawHelp is now providing a significant helping-hand to a large portion of the city's non-English speaking population.

The LawHelp website is the result of the diligent efforts of hundreds of legal aid and service organizations throughout the State, and is supported financially by the Legal Services Corporation, IOLA, Bar funds, and the United Way, among others. In LawHelp, the process is already in place that aggregates the best materials and keeps current all the complex eligibility and contact information for all the legal services organizations throughout the City. In addition, LawHelp collaborated with the Office of Court Administration in developing the "Going to Court" area of the website.

There are twelve legal topic areas on LawHelp: Consumer, Disability, Education, Family and Juvenile, Health, Housing, Immigration and Naturalization, Individual Rights, Life Planning, Public Benefits, Taxes, and Workers Rights. And, we are in the process of developing a subject area especially devoted to the legal problems of New York's Senior Citizens, although a good deal of this information is currently available, just embedded within the 12 topic areas just listed.

Using the website saves time for both the individual user, and for legal and social service providers by matching the person in need with the most appropriate referrals and materials through basing its search capacity on a zip code or place of residence and type of legal problem. And LawHelp is continually updated through the participation of volunteer attorneys throughout the state. Indeed, more than 100 legal service organizations in New York City alone have contributed to the resources and information on the site, and participate in ongoing reviews to insure that information given to clients is accurate and up-to-date.
This is the most comprehensive and up-to-date database of New York legal services providers available.

Traditionally, most 311 referrals are to other City agencies using internal telephone links. However, if referrals are to be made to non-profits, a website referral may prove to be extremely efficient, cost effective and convenient. Many non-profits don't have the capacity to answer thousands of phone calls, given limited budget and personnel. Since LawHelp is a website, it operates with a small budget, small staff and numerous volunteers. But it reaches thousands of New Yorkers. In 2005, nearly 155,000 New Yorkers viewed over 820,000 pages, and downloaded about 65,000 resources and 130,000 legal referrals.

Already, a number of City agencies, such as HPD and the NYC Commission on Women's Issues, provide a link from their site to LawHelp as the way for low-income New Yorkers to get legal help-but you have to drill down quite far to find the link. Using the 311 system for this referral would substantially shorten the time it took for a person in need to connect to the help they are looking for.

It's important to note that over the last several years, more and more low-income New Yorkers have access to the internet both individually and through schools, libraries, health centers, social service, neighborhood and community organizations. So, the vast majority of people who call 311 for help would be able, if necessary, to find a computer to use or have internet access help through a friend or family member, or community resource. And, our mandate is to continue to find ways to bridge the digital divide affecting low-income people through a wide range of outreach and training initiatives to organizations and groups throughout the five boroughs. In particular, we are currently engaged in targeted outreach to librarians, community technology centers and community-based organizations that serve immigrants.

It is exciting that the City Council is taking this initiative, in exploring the kinds of social services that ought to be made available through the 311system and evaluating the range of options and strategies for making this improvement possible. We hope you will agree that LawHelp.org/NY is an essential tool that is already in place for ensuring access to justice for all New Yorkers, and if the 311 system made referrals directly to it when legal help is needed, hundreds of thousands more New Yorkers would be served than are currently knowledgeable about this important resource.

LawHelp is a collaborative project of: the City Bar Justice Center (Association of the Bar of the City of New York), Legal Services for New York City, Pro Bono Net, The Legal Aid Society, Volunteers of Legal Service, Empire Justice Center, The New York State Bar Association, and the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York.

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