Bar launches virtual advice clinic
Florida.FreeLegalAnswers.org to give low-income Floridians greater access to legal resources
With the launch of a new virtual legal advice clinic, Florida Free Legal Answers, low-income Floridians now have a way to get their legal questions answered by a licensed attorney completely free of charge.
A cooperative effort between The Florida Bar and the ABA, the program leverages technology to help improve access to justice for those who would otherwise find it out of reach.
“Justice should not be restricted to only those who can afford it,” said Michael Higer, president of The Florida Bar. “As the great information equalizer, technology has the potential to help level the playing field by connecting citizens who have legal questions with those best able to answer them.”
More than 500 Florida lawyers have already signed up to participate in the program and volunteer their time on a pro-bono basis. Florida lawyers may enroll by visiting florida.freelegalanswers.org and click on “Volunteer Attorney Registration” and agree to the attorney agreement. The ABA offers malpractice insurance for all participating volunteer attorneys.
According to Legal Services Corporation, the “justice gap” — the difference between the civil legal needs of low-income citizens and the resources available to meet those needs — continues to widen. Last year, 71 percent of low-income households experienced at least one civil legal problem, ranging from health care, housing conditions, disability access, and veterans’ benefits to domestic violence. Many of these citizens are forced to go it alone without legal guidance.
Florida Free Legal Answers is powered through the internet and accessible 24/7, matching qualifying participants with licensed attorneys who can answer questions related to civil law. Topics may include family law matters such as divorce, child support, adoption and name changes, as well as domestic violence, bankruptcy, consumer issues, education, employment, housing, workers’ compensation, wills, and estate planning.
“The legal system can be a challenging maze to navigate for even the most educated and well-versed,” said Higer. “People often contact legal aid because they do not know anywhere else to turn. Many times, they do not need the full range of services from a lawyer but rather just need answers to a question or two. This program will provide folks in need with readily available lawyers who can answer their questions simply and efficiently.”
Here’s how Florida Free Legal Answers works for consumers:
• Go to https://florida.freelegalanswers.org to sign up and answer a few questions to see if they qualify to use the service. Consumers must have an annual household income below 250 percent of federal poverty guidelines; have less than $6,000 in total assets; be at least 18 years old; and not be incarcerated. If the consumers are not eligible, they will not be able to utilize the program, and will receive a denial indication.
• After they register, they may ask a specific question about their non-criminal legal issue.
• Consumers will receive an email telling them when their question has received a response.
• Log back in, see the response, and ask more questions if necessary. Attorneys can submit a single response or have a dialogue with the user through the site.
The volunteer lawyers at Florida Free Legal Answers can’t call the consumers or represent them in court.
The information users provide is confidential, and the answers are not associated with the client’s name. Data will be collected only for data-sharing purposes. Attorneys will see only the information associated with a client’s legal issue.
Users will not know the name of the attorneys who answer their questions unless the attorneys choose to provide it, a client makes a specific request for the name of the attorney, or it is required by a court of law. Volunteer attorneys will not write letters, make phone calls, file documents, or attend court proceedings.