New online system fills need for rural civil legal advice

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

They say that one lawyer will starve if he’s the only one in town, but two lawyers can make a decent living.

There are much better lawyer jokes out there, but it’s no laughing matter if you need legal advice and none is available.

That’s too often the case, especially for low-income residents in West Central Nebraska.

Eleven counties, including Hayes and 10 others in the Sandhills region, have no attorneys at all.

Frontier, Dundy and Perkins counties have only two each, and Hitchcock County is home to one attorney, according to the latest information from the Nebraska State Bar Association.

The association doesn’t require members to provide pro bono legal advice the way some states do, but members are “strongly encouraged” to provide 50 hours a year, according to Liz Neeley, executive director.

Traditionally, that’s been accomplished by walk-in clinics, where attorneys man a desk in a courthouse for set hours, providing simple civil legal advice to citizens who might otherwise ask court officials who are prohibited from doing so.

You could imagine how slow “business” would be for such a system in a small rural county. But for someone who needs a quick answer to a civil legal matter, it’s no small issue.

Fortunately, the Internet offers a solution that is being implemented in Nebraska this month.

The State Bar Association is now one of 42 states participating in a new pro bono initiative sponsored by the American Bar Association, which takes the walk-in clinic online.

Nebraska Free Legal Answers Online is available at www.Ne.FreeLegalAnswers.org, where approved volunteer lawyers provide information and basic legal advice about specific legal issues to eligible users.

Eligible users must be Nebraska residents 18 or older, have less than $5,000 total assets and total household income less than 250 percent of Federal Poverty Guidelines — and cannot be in jail or prison.

Log in, and you’ll provide information about a civil legal problem to narrow down specific questions, uploading documents or photos for a lawyer to review. You’re limited to three civil legal questions a year.

Volunteer lawyers can view questions according to their expertise, screen for conflicts and learn whether they can answer the user’s questions.

If they decide to respond, it goes to a private queue for that specific lawyer, who has three days to provide an initial response which forms an attorney-client relationship.

The user logs in, views the answer from “volunteer lawyer,” and when it is determined there is nothing further the lawyer can to assist, the question is closed and the attorney-client relationship ended.

NSBA President Jo Bataillon said the state bar is “deeply committed” to expanding access to the justice system, since it is estimated 85 percent of the public’s legal needs go unmet.

“The Nebraska Free Legal Answers website gives people in tough situations the opportunity to understand how the law applies to their particular situation at no charge,” Bataillon said.

The new system doesn’t address the issue of legal advice for low-income defendants in criminal cases, who are often served by harried public defenders without time or incentive to provide an effective defense.

But in civil questions, it’s a win-win situation for low-income people who need legal advice, and attorneys who want an effective way to provide pro bono service.

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