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New York State Bar Association President's committee on Access to Justice and Committee on Legal Aid Civil Legal Services Hearings

Access to Justice in the post-COVID Legal Landscape

INTRODUCTION

Pro Bono Net is a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to justice for low-to-moderate income individuals, families, and communities. For over 20 years, we have provided innovative technology solutions and expertise in building and mobilizing justice networks to transform the way legal help reaches those in need. Pro Bono Net's New York programs - including LawHelp New York, TenantHelp New York, the New York Crime Victims Legal Help, LawHelp Interactive, Closing the Gap, Family Legal Connection, and Citizenshipworks - enable legal service providers to maximize their impact, increase pro bono involvement, and empower the public by providing legal assistance and information, including resources for unrepresented litigants. At Pro Bono Net, we believe that everyone navigating the civil justice system should understand their legal rights, responsibilities, and what to expect from the legal procedures that they are a part of, even when they can't access or afford an attorney. 

 

MAKING LEGAL HELP INFORMATION ACCESSIBLE TO NEW YORKERS 

We are all familiar with the impact of the pandemic - there have been over 2 million cases of COVID-19 in New York alone, and over 50,000 people have lost their lives in the state because of the virus. Although we cannot yet know the full and long-term impact on individuals and families, we have learned through experience that legal needs have increased as a direct consequence of COVID-19. Last year, the Legal Services Corporation, the largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the United States, reported that over 95% of its grantees anticipated a - sharp increase in legal needs arising from COVID-19 in the areas of eviction, foreclosures, unemployment assistance and appeals, consumer debt, and income maintenance. We know from LSC's reports that an overwhelming majority of the civil legal problems reported by low-income Americans receive inadequate or no legal assistance and that self-represented litigants rely on legal information and low cost aid that is accessible to them. A report published in September of this year shows that the internet is the primary source of legal information, nationally, for people with legal needs, and most people rely on one source for legal information. 

Here in New York, the Permanent Commission on Access to Justice surveyed more than 600 litigants this year about their experience navigating the judicial system. Seventy-nine percent of unrepresented litigants reported using websites to find information about their legal rights or to try and find help with their case; 40% said they were unable to find what they were looking for. Even when legal resources can be found, it does not guarantee they will be used successfully, as reflected in the fact that 75% of unrepresented litigants said that they needed help in completing court forms, including those who did not know which forms to use (25%); could not understand the words, or could not speak the language, used in forms (15%); or could not find the information or document required to complete the forms (15%).

Since March 2020, both LawHelpNY.org and LiveHelp have seen an exponential increase in user requests for information related to the pandemic. LiveHelp, LawHelpNY's bilingual chat program, is one of the most accessed legal resources in New York State and helps more than 10,000 people each year access direct services, legal information, and court forms, as well as enables people to identify, prevent or mitigate legal problems. LiveHelp provides assistance in English and Spanish Monday through Friday from 9am to 9pm. With the onset of COVID-19, LiveHelp experienced unprecedented surges as New Yorkers struggled with an array of legal problems. To respond to the demand, LawHelpNY recruited hundreds of law student volunteers.

LiveHelp is a critical tool and reliable resource to assist low-income pro se litigants with finding information about court procedures, accessing court forms, and understanding their rights when representing themselves. The services that LiveHelp provides, complemented by partnerships with legal service providers, makes it an essential part of the access to justice ecosystem. In 2020 during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, LawHelpNY's trained volunteer operators provided information and referral-finding assistance to an average of 1,100 individuals a month from all over the state, 32% of which were CourtHelp-related. Moreover, 119 LiveHelp volunteers from 20 law schools contributed over 4,685 hours of pro bono assistance through LiveHelp. Among the feedback we have received from LiveHelp users: 

  • "So grateful to have the help by live chat! I tried calling the court house number but no answer! Your service was needed!"
  • "The operator who helped me was very helpful with the information provided to me.  Thank you so very much."
  • "Thank you so much for being here [and] being free! You are greatly appreciated!"
  • "[The] Rep was caring, looked up lots of information for me and shared useful resources. I am really grateful for the service."

Since we launched TenantHelpNY.org, thousands of New Yorkers outside of New York City have visited the online resource looking to understand their rights around COVID-19 housing protections and eviction prevention. We anticipate increased usage of the site's resources and tools when the eviction moratorium expires in January 2022. 

Moreover, when the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit New York in early September, we saw an increase in LawHelpNY visits by people seeking legal resources and information about how to obtain assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, commonly known as FEMA. We know from Superstorm Sandy and other recent disasters around the country that recovering from the impact of a climate disaster can span over several months, and in some cases, years. The legal needs arising out of Hurricane Ida include assistance with appealing FEMA and Small Business Administration determinations, landlord and tenant problems, replacing lost or damaged documents, insurance scams, and contractor fraud. These needs may exacerbate existing legal issues connected to COVID-19. 

 

CREATING LEGAL SUPPORT NETWORKS FOR SELF-REPRESENTED LITIGANTS 

In addition to accessible online legal help content, our tools have enabled thousands of community advocates and pro bono attorneys to assist New Yorkers in navigating their legal cases. For example, the Family Offense Petition Program, a program made available by the New York State Unified Court System in partnership with Pro Bono Net, was first piloted in the Bronx in 2013 and has expanded to all New York counties. The program enables trained advocates to help domestic violence survivors create and remotely file a temporary order of protection petition with the courts. During the pandemic, more than 14,000 petitions were filed remotely using this program, a 20% increase over the prior year. 

The Family Offense Petition program is powered by Pro Bono Net's LawHelp Interactive program (LHI), which allows self-represented litigants across the state to use plain language, often bilingual interactive DIY (Do-it-Yourself) Interviews to guide them through the process of completing court forms and other legal documents, and to make complex court processes more accessible and human-centered. In the face of widespread court and legal aid agency closures, New Yorkers used LHI to assemble more than 154,000 court forms in 2020 in areas such as consumer debt, child custody and support, landlord tenant issues and wills and estates. (And, through the first three quarters of 2021, usage is up by almost 20%.) When asked in a survey, "What did it mean to you to have this program available to help deal with the COVID crisis?" one user responded, "[E]verything, I am emotionally and economically impacted by the pandemic and this service was indispensable." Another stated, "I am a senior who is not computer savvy, so this website has been my lifesaver in this time of crisis in my life." These are just two of hundreds of testimonials we received in 2020 about how LawHelp Interactive provided a legal and safety lifeline for people trying to resolve legal problems amidst the great hardship of the pandemic. 

Another of our programs, Remote Legal Connect, was developed before the pandemic and has expanded since March of 2020 due to the increased need for remote legal services. The program enables legal service providers and pro bono initiatives to set up remote legal support projects. These projects allow pro bono attorneys and other advocates to virtually meet with clients, in most cases self-represented litigants, while simultaneously reviewing and completing forms and other documentation. In New York, we learned that despite delays in several cases because of the pandemic, our partners continued to use the platform uninterrupted, including assisting pro se litigants with COVID-19 related matters. For example, last year, a woman who had lost her job because of the pandemic needed help with a custody dispute involving her three children.  With an upcoming virtual hearing in Family Court, the woman was able to meet with a pro bono attorney through Family Legal Connection, one of the Remote Legal Connect projects in New York, to learn about her rights and prepare for court.

 

DIGITAL DIVIDE CONSIDERATIONS 

While Pro Bono Net saw record-high usage of many of our online legal help systems during the pandemic, we also know that the digital divide had a profound impact on low income and under-resourced communities that lack the Internet access, mobile devices or support to access essential online legal resources and services. 

Prior to the pandemic, the digital divide was often thought of as an infrastructure issue, for example 'last mile" connectivity gaps in rural areas. While broadband access and affordability remains an issue for too many New Yorkers - particularly low-income, Black, Latinx, and rural communities - the pandemic spotlighted new dimensions of this divide, highlighting who is able to access basic legal services and participate equitably in our legal system. These new dimensions include barriers that low income New Yorkers face when seeking information in languages other than English, or in plain language (understandable to anyone unfamiliar with the legal system); barriers encountered by people who lack digital literacy to participate in online services; and barriers to scanning, printing and signing documents. 

To reach underserved New Yorkers, especially communities that are disproportionately impacted by systemic barriers, Pro Bono Net's programs work to advance digital equity. We advocate for a "no wrong door" approach, with online options increasing and complementing phone, in-person, and other traditional service delivery models. We work with direct service providers and trusted intermediaries to design wraparound services that help people successfully navigate complex processes and participate in remote services. Our programs provide language access, plain language information, and plain language privacy policies so users understand their data rights and options. And we train our LiveHelp operators on empathy-centered support to help people in crisis learn about their legal options and feel more confident taking the next step. 

 

CONCLUSION

As illustrated by the data included in our testimony, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers are already seeking out and successfully using online legal resources and services. We anticipate that this demand will only grow in the aftermath of the pandemic, which supercharged our collective reliance on digital tools. We are encouraged by new state and federal investments to reduce the digital divide and ensure widely affordable and accessible broadband access for historically marginalized and excluded communities. However, access to the Internet and access to the civil justice system is not enough. To ensure that all New Yorkers are able to take advantage of investments made to increase access to justice, robust legal information and services must be made widely available to the public through a multitude of easily accessible digital channels. Moreover, true empathy for the most vulnerable must ensure that they are prepared and supported when they enter the legal or court system. We, as a community, have a responsibility to do all that we can to eliminate systemic barriers to justice, to center human well-being in the design of court proceedings, and to help ensure that people can successfully participate in civil justice processes. 

 

 

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