Spotlight on Pro Bono: Statewide Online Access to Free Legal Services
By Beverly A. Allen
In 2012, Legal Service Corporation awarded a Technology Initiative Grant to Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, now Land of Lincoln Legal Aid, and its project partners, Prairie State Legal Services, Legal Assistance Foundation, Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO), and PSTI to develop a statewide online access system, which would serve as a virtual entryway to the Illinois legal services delivery system. Land of Lincoln Legal Aid serves 65 counties in central and southern Illinois. Prairie State Legal Services serves 36 counties throughout northern and central Illinois. Legal Assistance Foundation serves all of Cook County. ILAO developed a statewide legal services website that serves advocates and self-represented litigants in the state of Illinois by providing access to legal information. The award-winning website functions as a search engine for people to find information and assistance related to their legal problems. PSTI is a company that developed the cloud-based case management software program, Legal Server, that is utilized by the three legal service project partners to manage their cases.
The goal of this project was to improve access to legal services for low-income and vulnerable Illinois residents and increase efficiencies among legal aid programs. Using the Northwest Justice Project’s online access program as a guide, the partners were tasked to develop and implement a pilot system of online triage and intake that serves the needs of the various programs in the state of Illinois.
The project integrated three tools into the statewide legal services website. This included a triage module on www.illinoislegalaid.org to direct website users to the most appropriate resources for their legal problem; an intake module on the website to allow eligible potential clients to apply for legal service; and an administrative tool on the website to give legal aid offices control over the rules that govern the online triage and intake modules. PSTI was tasked with developing a statewide legal server database to connect the individual programs and store the online applications until accepted into the individual program’s own legal server database.
In Illinois, potential clients normally enter the legal services delivery system by calling a legal aid hotline or going to a local legal aid office during walk-in hours. Legal aid programs serve thousands of low-income and vulnerable clients each year. However, due to limited resources and limited hours, potential clients may not be able to get through on the hotlines or are unable to receive services at the local offices due to limited hours and long wait lines. As the demand for legal aid increases and program resources remain limited, a system streamlining the intake process for legal aid programs and that guides people to the best resources available for their specific legal issues was essential.
When new applicants search for legal information on the ILAO website, they have the option to click on “Get Legal Help”. If they click on this option, the user is asked for a description of their legal problem, their zip code, and whether they want a lawyer, forms, or help finding information. If they choose a lawyer, the user is asked a list of triage questions that narrows their legal issue. If the specific legal issue is one that is handled by the legal aid program that serves the county the user resides in, an online application will be offered for completion. After completing the application, the user is offered a list of appointment slots where they may select three callback times for the legal aid program to call them. If the user selects time slots that are not available, they will be directed to call the legal aid program. The website also offers a list of information that may be pertinent to the user’s legal problem. The completed application is stored in the statewide legal server database. The appropriate legal aid program receives notification that an online application has been completed. The application is then reviewed and accepted into the legal aid program’s own legal server database.
Initially, each program determined a few legal areas to include in the online access system. Since its inception, the statewide online access system has expanded the types of legal problems to include most, if not all legal matters handled by each program. At the outside, not all applicants were offered the option to receive a call from the legal aid programs. Recently, two of the three legal aid project partners started offering the callback option to all users. One of the legal aid programs offers a specialized priority hotline for the online applicants to call upon completion of their online intake. Four additional legal aid programs that serve Illinois residents have been added to the statewide system. Thus far, more than 100,000 users have entered the triage system. The stakeholders of the statewide system, now coined the Online Triage and Intake System (OTIS), continues to assess the strengths of the system and opportunities for improvement.