Summer 2004

Know Your Rights: Digitally Connecting CTC Users to the Law and Legal Resources
by Allison McDermott

According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 80% of people with access to the Internet use it to search for answers to a specific question. Staff members of community technology programs understand the challenges of helping their members find quality online resources to answer those specific questions. This June at the annual CTCNet conference in Seattle, Pro Bono Net presents a workshop that examines online resources available when those questions involve legal problems.

Each year only 20% of the civil legal needs of the poor in the United States are met, according to a study by the American Bar Association. That means that each year 80% of people living near the poverty level in this country who have a legal problem cannot access an attorney and cannot find the answers they need to solve their problems. Technology provides an opportunity to bridge the gap between legal needs and answers. In fact, pilot projects are showing that greater access to justice can be achieved using a combination of technology, trained staff/volunteers, and partnerships to provide such individuals with the information and tools to address their legal problems. Ensuring that the technology delivers quality content and reaches its target audience are the biggest challenges. Echoing the well-known Children's Partnership report, Tom Kamber (formerly of One Economy Corporation) noted in a City Limits article earlier this year that the lack of quality online content for low-income users has been overlooked in the struggle to provide access to the Internet:

"More frustrating than the continued existence of the digital divide is the degree to which policymakers and activists have focused on that single problem, missing opportunities to use the technology, right now, to help people overcome the challenges of poverty. Getting lost in all the concern over the digital divide are the needs of those who are already online." screen shots
To this end, for the past three years Pro Bono Net has partnered with nonprofit legal aid organizations across the country to build, a national legal information web portal. LawHelp utilizes a national database yet decentralized content management structure, placing content control directly in the hands of local legal services organizations and attorneys. By doing so, provides state-specific legal self-help materials, court forms, social and legal services referral information, and other relevant information for the legal needs of the poor. Content covered in most states includes family law, domestic violence, housing, public benefits, immigration, and health, among other topics.

To access information, a user enters his/her zip code, selects the legal problem, and within two clicks reaches specific information such as the intake hours for domestic violence cases at the local legal aid office, or what to do if served with divorce papers, or the exact legal rights when a landlord turns off the heat to save money. In addition, there are over 1200 resources in non-English languages, including some state sites entirely in Spanish and other languages. Most importantly, the information on all of these sites has been reviewed by the attorneys who represent low-income users each day and understand their complex legal needs.

Another exciting example of innovative content for the poor available though the LawHelp system is the I CAN! online filing system, developed by the Legal Society of Orange County. I-CAN Efile is helping to expand people's awareness and ability to claim the Federal Earned Income Tax Credit (referred to as EITC or EIC). The EITC is a $31 billion program and can return as much as $4,140 a year to a low-income, working family. Online forms are available in several languages and enable applicants to file for their state and federal returns online at their local CTC, saving them time and money. [See previous Review articles on I-CAN efile and the Boston EITC and Technology Access Project.]

In spite of the fact that quality content does exist, it can be very difficult to distinguish a reputable legal information site from many less than reputable sites on the Internet today. Further, conducting a legal search on Google (as with many searches) can be overwhelming and unproductive. A Google search on "free legal help" returns over 12 million sites; a search for "need a pro bono attorney" returns nearly 100,000 sites. Starting with a national portal like, a state bar association web site, or a state court web site will yield better, more specific search results, from reputable legal organizations. Maryland Legal Assistance Network has a helpful online guide, "Legal Websites: Separating the Good from the Bad and the Ugly," which aims to help users make sense of online legal information. CTCs can play an important role in helping members distinguish these differences; our workshop explores how to find and recognize these good sites.

Finally, CTCs are uniquely positioned to partner with the legal services community to serve as an outlet for legal information and other critical services for those 80% of people with a legal problem who cannot otherwise access an attorney or information. To help with such opportunities, our workshop provides a tour of LawHelp and other legal sites, examines online legal resources (local and national) for CTC users, covers how to recognize quality online legal content, and demonstrates partnership opportunities with local legal services programs. Do check it out!

Allison McDermott manages the national LawHelp project for Pro Bono Net. Pro Bono Net is a nonprofit organization that partners with nonprofit legal organizations across the country to increase access to justice for the poor and other vulnerable populations.

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