Free Online Answers for Civil Cases

The following is an excerpt from Susan Essoyan’s “Site Offers Free Advice for Needy Isle Residents Involved in Civil Cases” (Star-Advertiser, 12 Nov. 2016). For the full article, go to the Star-Advertiser site.

People who can’t afford a lawyer can now reach out to get free advice on civil legal issues — from child custody to debt collection disputes — via the new Hawaii Online Pro Bono Portal.

Michelle Acosta

Michelle Acosta

“It’s available at their fingertips,” said Michelle Acosta, executive director of the nonprofit Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii, which runs the site. “You can pose a question and it looks exactly like an email. A volunteer attorney provides an answer. You can go back and forth.”

The site, which went live Oct. 24, is the latest move in a concerted campaign to push open the door to justice for needy folks in Hawaii, a broad-based effort that has earned Hawaii national recognition.

The Aloha State placed third on the 2016 Justice Index issued by the National Access to Justice Center, which ranks states and the District of Columbia on their efforts to promote justice for all, regardless of economic status, language or disability.

“It represents a lot of hard work by an awful lot of people to get us to this point in Hawaii,” Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald said last month at the Hawaii Justice Foundation’s annual meeting. “We have made great strides under the leadership of our Access to Justice Commission.”

The commission was formed in 2008 in the wake of a report that found that only one in five low- and moderate-income people get their civil legal needs met. While the right to a lawyer is guaranteed in criminal cases, that’s not the case in civil disputes, despite the high stakes at times, from losing a home to custody of a child.

The new secure website, hawaii.freelegalanswers.org, allows people with limited incomes [income and asset restrictions apply] to pose questions on civil cases, whenever and wherever they have internet access. Most of the questions coming in so far deal with consumer debt collection and family-law issues such as divorce and child support, Acosta said.

The portal, sponsored by the American Bar Association, supplements face-to-face office hours with volunteer attorneys offered by Acosta’s organization.

The online option is an easy way for lawyers to lend a hand, since they can log in at their convenience, choose a question and respond. A training session for volunteers, set for Nov. 18, has the catchy title, “How to do pro bono in your pajamas.”

“So far we have recruited 25 attorneys,” said Acosta, who is seeking more. “A lot of those attorneys are not current volunteers, which is great. The whole idea was to increase our pool of volunteers by giving them an opportunity to volunteer on their own time.”

[Attorneys interested in volunteering to provide advice may call 528-7046 or email hopadmin@vlsh.org. The next training session, “How to do pro bono in your pajamas,” is Nov. 18.]

Along with the new portal, Recktenwald highlighted other steps toward “justice for all” that have been taken with inspiration from the commission, which is led by retired Supreme Court Justice Simeon Acoba. They include:

  • The creation of Access to Justice rooms and self-help centers at courthouses across the state, where volunteer attorneys give free guidance to people trying to represent themselves in court. Since the first center opened on Kauai in 2011, more than 13,700 people have been helped, 2,600 so far this year.
  • A partnership with the public libraries that allows people to use interactive online forms to create legal documents they will need in court. People input information about their legal issues and the data is automatically uploaded into the proper documents, similar to how Turbo Tax software is used to create tax returns. Since it began in 2013, nearly 6,000 forms have been completed and nearly 11,000 people have used the software.
  • The Hawaii Pro Bono Appellate Pilot Project, which kicked off in January, provides volunteer counsel to people representing themselves in cases that are on appeal.
  • New funding sources for legal aid efforts. In 2011, the Supreme Court adopted a rule allowing courts to distribute unpaid residual funds from class-action suits toward legal services for the poor. A recent award sent more than $100,000 each to the Legal Aid Society and Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii.
  • HELP, the Hawaii Emerging Legal Practitioners Access to Justice Project, which offers mentoring and stipends to help lawyers launch startup practices and serve clients of limited means. The project, started in January and now recruiting its next cohort, is coordinated by the University of Hawaii law school, Legal Aid Society of Hawaii and Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii.

 

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