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Live Chat Program Connects Underserved Communities To Legal Help
LawHelp.org/NY, the legal information portal for low-income New Yorkers, has launched LiveHelp, a real-time, online chat service in English and Spanish that helps guide visitors to needed legal information and referrals.
Designed to help unrepresented New Yorkers with civil legal problems, particularly the rising number facing unemployment, foreclosure, eviction and other problems brought on by the economic crisis, LiveHelp connects those in need with the many legal programs helping underserved communities in New York.
"LiveHelp is an important addition to the programs serving the record number of unrepresented litigants in New York's courts," said Hon. Fern A. Fisher, Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for New York City Courts. "As courts and legal service organizations create new programs to address their needs, LawHelp/NY is helping people find them."
LawHelp/NY has seen a dramatic upsurge in usage during the recession: in 2009, the site was visited 377,343 times, an increase of 33% over the previous year. But while most visitors are successful at finding what they need, some have difficulty finding answers to their particular legal challenge. “Legal problems are hard for anyone to understand or manage on their own,” said Nate Treadwell, LiveHelp Program Coordinator at LawHelp/NY. “Getting to the right place at the right time can have a profound effect on the outcome of a potentially life-altering problem such as eviction or foreclosure.”
LiveHelp provides individual, online assistance via live chat with a volunteer trained to navigate the legal resources available. The chat directs people to the legal information they need, including answers to questions about legal rights, tools for those going to court without a lawyer such as a do-it-yourself answer for housing court, and referrals to legal aid organizations.
Volunteers who spoke with clients during the program’s trial period found that their assistance could have a major impact. "One of my first conversations was with an unemployed woman staying with a friend in a rural county," said Helen Poitra-Chalmers, a LiveHelp volunteer. "She needed food stamps to get by, but she didn't know where to go and she thought she might be turned down because of her friend's income. Within a few minutes, she had enough information to show the agency that she was eligible."
LiveHelp is staffed in part by trained volunteers, including law students from Columbia, CUNY and Touro, as well as customer service staff from LexisNexis. To implement LiveHelp, LawHelp/NY drew on its relationship with Pro Bono Net, a national organization dedicated to increasing access to justice through technology. Pro Bono Net has assisted other state programs in launching LiveHelp, and its research shows that LiveHelp makes a significant impact in helping visitors find tools and referrals to protect their rights.
LiveHelp New York will be the first project to be bilingual from the outset: Spanish-speaking operators will be available during business hours.
The LiveHelp project is supported by the Legal Services Corporation, the IOLA Fund of the State of New York, and Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship Program.
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About LawHelp/NY: LawHelp.org/