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Free Legal Answers fielding more questions during the pandemic

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Free Legal AnswersFree Legal Answers, a digital clinic that provides civil legal service for low-income Floridians, is feeling the impact of COVID-19.

“Based on the data, we are receiving well over 100 more questions per month compared to last year,” said Francisco-Javier Digon-Greer, assistant director of programs for The Florida Bar.

A contributing factor, Digon-Greer said, is a temporary expansion of income eligibility from 250% of the federal poverty level to 400%, or $51,040 for individuals and $104,080 for a family of four.

The upward trend began in May 2020, Digon-Greer said, and increases in landlord-tenant and family law questions are likely tied to a pandemic-related eviction crisis and growing domestic conflict.

“I anticipate this month, we will hit over 450 questions again,” Digon-Greer said.

The program is popular with attorneys, allowing them to answer questions anonymously any time of day or night while earning credit toward their pro bono reporting requirements.

Eligible clients post their legal questions online — providing enough background to allow volunteer attorneys to avoid potential conflicts — and wait for a response. Between its inception in the spring of 2017, and April 23 of this year, the program opened 11,059 client accounts, logged 10,022 questions, and recruited 882 volunteer attorneys.

From January through April 23, Florida lawyers posted a 96% answer rate, one of the highest in the nation.

Recruitment of volunteers, “an ongoing process,” hasn’t been slowed by the pandemic, Digon-Greer said, with 45 new attorneys signing up since March 15.

Even more encouraging, he said, volunteer attorneys have been stepping up their service where it’s needed most, Digon-Greer said.

From March 1 to August 31, volunteers posted a 99% answer rate for the “Housing/Landlord Tenant/Eviction/Eviction Foreclosure” category.

“In the Family/Divorce/Custody category in the same time frame, 96% of the questions have been answered,” he said. “During this time frame, 2,481 questions have been posted, and 2,364 have been answered.”

A preliminary review identified 34 questions regarding COVID-19, but the actual number is likely higher because the database has no pandemic-specific category, Digon-Greer said.

Tallahassee government lawyer Leah Wiederspahn, consistently one of the program’s top performers, says the pandemic appears to be exacting a heavy economic and psychological toll on clients.

“There is an uptick that I have seen in eviction matters, and misunderstanding about the CARES Act,” she said, referring to the federal aid program that Congress failed to renew. “Clients want to know what to do now, and do the protections continue?”

Clients are hurting financially, and growing less tolerant, she said.

“I have seen many more cases asking what to do because the payor lost his/her job and their child support has been interrupted,” she said. “Both are suffering, but they can’t or won’t see the other’s position.”

Confinement appears to be making some clients more irritable, and many are frustrated that courthouses are closed to the public and their cases are languishing, Wiederspahn said.

“I believe I have seen more angst from people complaining about neighbors, both renters and homeowners,” she said. “But by far, I have seen a large increase in domestic frustrations, that they can’t get their cases heard.”

A veteran lawyer and civil servant, Wiederspahn said she soothes her clients as much as she can, and tries to be a diplomat for the courts.

“I have to say yes, I know, for you this is urgent, but there are cases that actually are more dire in nature,” she said. “I choose to not ignore these questions because I feel that only makes it all the worse for them.”

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