New Free Legal Advice Project Makes It Easy to Volunteer
By Linda S. Thomas
It is undeniable that the demographics in our communities and our state are rapidly changing, and Oklahoma lawyers must adapt to help meet the needs of the almost 4 million people who call Oklahoma “home.” According to the latest published statistics, approximately 25 percent are children and 15 percent are over age 65; 35 percent are of ethnic or racial minority; 6 percent were born in a foreign country; 10 percent of people living in Oklahoma speak a language other than English as their primary language; 11 percent are disabled; 17 percent live in poverty; and Oklahoma is home to about 305,000 veterans and 99,000 LGBT adults.
Many of these citizens need good quality legal services but do not have the financial resources to pay an attorney. In many cases, pro se litigants simply cannot adequately represent themselves and all too often clog up the court system. Oklahoma lawyers must be proactive in the development and implementation of new and innovative programs to assure the “underserved” among us receive good legal services and have adequate access to our justice system.
In order to address the needs of these low-income citizens, the Oklahoma Access to Justice Commission was established by order of the Supreme Court in March 2014 to, among others things, “develop and implement policy initiatives designed to expand access to and enhance the quality of justice in civil legal matters for low-income Oklahoma residents.” Through its expertise, hard work and commitment, last summer the commission, in cooperation with the OBA and ABA, launched its Oklahoma Free Legal Answers Program. Oklahoma was one of the first states in the nation to provide this service to its citizens.
The way it works is very simple — an Oklahoma adult seeking assistance through the program logs on to Oklahoma.freelegalanswers.org and answers a few questions to determine if he or she qualifies for the program. To qualify, the user must have a household income less than 250 percent of the federal poverty level, may not have liquid assets exceeding $5,000 in value, may not be incarcerated and may not request assistance with criminal law matters. Users not eligible for the program will be redirected to resources to help them locate a lawyer in their area or find other legal services. Qualified users create a secure account where they can post a request for legal advice or information and provide facts that will help a preauthorized volunteer Oklahoma lawyer answer the question.
Volunteer lawyers must be licensed members in good standing with the OBA. Participating lawyers answer only questions they choose, and the user will see the written response through the secure website. Participating lawyers remain anonymous unless they choose to disclose their identity. The number and type of questions answered are strictly up to the volunteer lawyer. This is a great opportunity for lawyers in every practice setting, including those whose employment situation means they don’t carry professional liability insurance since the site provides that coverage. This Oklahoma site will serve only Oklahoma residents.
All Oklahomans should have access to good legal information and advice based on Oklahoma law, and it can only be a good thing for Oklahoma lawyers and our association to be at the forefront of serving our citizens in this way. You can sign up to be a participating volunteer lawyer in this program by logging on to Oklahoma.freelegalanswers.org.
Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- OBJ 88 pg. 268 (Feb. 11, 2017)