Ashleigh Backman, pro bono attorney manager, and Jonathan Caez, pro bono coordinator.
Ashleigh Backman, pro bono attorney manager, and Jonathan Caez, pro bono coordinator. (Courtesy photo)

The power of the internet is being harnessed to make it easier for low-income Connecticut residents to access legal advice, and to make it easier for pro bono attorneys to volunteer to help people who can’t afford to pay for attorneys.

Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut is one of the legal aid law firms in eight states which are partnering with the American Bar Association on a virtual law advice clinic that allows low-income clients to ask questions about civil law and for attorneys to answer their questions online whenever convenient for them.

Instead of dropping into a legal aid clinic to talk to a lawyer in person, clients can type their questions and submit them on a computer.

Judge Elliot N. Solomon, deputy chief court administrator and co-chairman of the Connecticut judiciary’s Access to Justice Commission, said this new program is unique because it makes it more convenient for people with low to moderate incomes to access legal advice and more convenient for lawyers to be able to provide pro bono service to people who need it.

“It’s a win-win both from the perspective of the client and the lawyer,” Solomon said.

For clients, the program enables them to access legal advice if they can’t afford to take time off from work or if they have some kind of disability that makes travel more difficult, Solomon said.

Clients can get quick responses to their questions with this program, Solomon said. For people who are overwhelmed because they are facing an eviction or debt collection, “sometimes the easiest course of action is to ignore it, which is the least effective” way, he said.

For lawyers, this program makes it easier to do pro bono work whenever they have free time, whether it’s at “airport terminals, their offices or late at night,” Ashleigh Backman, SLS’ pro bono attorney manager, said.

“We saw this as a great way for busy associates, busy solo practitioners, to be able to do pro bono work and accept legal questions they feel most competent answering,” Backman said.

Starting six years ago, Tennessee was the first state to run the virtual pro bono clinic. Connecticut and six other states launched their own a few weeks ago. The program will be in 75 percent of the country by November.

Connecticut’s version of the program, ct.freelegalanswers.org, is still in beta testing, Backman said. The client feedback so far is “that it was really easy to get an answer for free,” she said.

People can ask questions about such civil legal issues aslandlord-tenant problems, consumer debt, employment, workers’ compensation, family law, wills, and health law, Backman said.

The program also could be used to send out mass legal information if there is a disaster in Connecticut, Backman said.

There are between 30 and 35 attorneys actively volunteering in the program, Backman said, and SLS would like to recruit more attorneys to participate.

Backman explained that the program is not a live chat but a “virtual space to ask questions.”

Clients have to meet requirements for income eligibility, Backman said. Clients also have to sign a retainer agreeing that their attorney-client relationship will end after their questions are answered, she said.

As the site administrator, SLS is providing some quality control by making sure the volunteer attorneys do not have any disciplinary issues with their law licenses and provide legally accurate answers, Backman said.

Attorneys can ask further questions of clients through the computer program, Backman said.

“The attorney is in the driver seat,” she said.

SLS will steer complex questions that would benefit from more in-depth legal services to its own staff, she said.

SLS hired Jonathan Caez as the site administrator. Caez sends out clients’ questions to attorneys and encourages attorneys to respond to questions in the queue, Backman said. Cindy Fernandez, a paralegal as well as SLS’ executive assistant, also will be supporting the project.

Providing a legal answer is going to empower clients and give them hope that there is someone on the other end who cares, Backman said.

The judiciary is going to assist the program by marketing it to potential pro bono volunteers and to potential clients, especially through the court’s outreach program in the state’s libraries, Solomon said.

The program also has been launched in Louisiana, Mississippi, New York, Oklahoma, Virginia and Wyoming.

Software developers at Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz built the Free Legal Answers website.