Free legal representation can be hard to access in rural communities, and filing legal documents without representation can be costly and confusing. To improve access to civil legal justice for low-income community members, Wicomico Public Libraries (WPL) partnered with the Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service to create a cyber legal clinic, called Legal Clinic @ YOUR Library. Participants attend clinics in person at WPL's Downtown branch and connect with Baltimore lawyers remotely using Google Hangouts to receive full civil legal representation free of charge.
Identifying Community Needs
Wicomico County is a mostly rural setting situated on the eastern shore of Maryland with three library branches that serve communities predominantly at or below the poverty level. One of the many services that WPL manages is its Job Search Center, which provides community members with free employment search support. Through conversations with patrons, however, library staff learned that a common — and significant — barrier to employment is a prior criminal record.
One option for overcoming this employment challenge is to expunge the patron's record. Expungement is a legal process that erases or seals a job seeker's prior criminal records, meaning that they no longer need to disclose the items successfully expunged from their record during a job search.
But filing for expungement can be expensive and confusing without legal guidance. Many people can't afford the $30 fee per expungement — particularly if they need to remove multiple items from their record. Scott Mahler, WPL adult services manager, first searched locally for free legal services to help address this problem but found few resources in the area.
Partnership and Collaboration
Expanding his search, Mahler contacted the Baltimore-based Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) — a nonprofit organization that connects low-income Marylanders with volunteer lawyers to deliver free civil legal assistance — to brainstorm how to best connect rural low-income residents to free legal representation. Susan Francis, executive director of MVLS, proposed a remote, cyber clinic model using video conferencing so that lawyers in Baltimore (two hours away from Wicomico County) could reach clients without having to travel.
With this partnership in place, WPL began offering Legal Clinic @ YOUR Library, which is held bimonthly for two hours in the library's computer lab. After signing in and submitting their intake form, participants are set up at a computer station with headsets to meet with a paralegal and then an MVLS lawyer using Google Hangouts to discuss their case. If a client meets the income qualification requirement, all services are provided free of charge. "The clients through Wicomico libraries have been very receptive to using this remote process," says Francis, "and often seem a bit surprised that they really are speaking to and getting help from an attorney."
The impact of the Wicomico cyber legal clinics has been remarkable. Since the clinics began, MVLS has assisted 182 individuals with 322 legal issues. Of those 182 individuals served, 169 received legal representation to have eligible items removed from their records. "There are so many barriers that can prevent low-income individuals from moving forward," says Francis, "and the more we can do to remove those barriers, the better odds they have to stabilize their lives."
Mahler adds that holding these clinics in a library helps participants feel more comfortable: "An experience like this feels more personal through the library. At the end of a session, you can see the relief on people's faces," Mahler reflects. "They've been needing to do this for a long time but needed help overcoming those initial financial barriers. At the end of the clinic, people hug us, and they cry, we cry. The day of the clinic is great, which is telling us that we're doing something right for our community."
Scott Mahler and Susan Francis share their advice for other public libraries — particularly small and rural libraries — considering a similar web-based legal clinic program.
- Partnership — Mahler (WPL): "Look to larger towns or cities to see what volunteer or free legal services are available as potential partners. With the technology resources available now, connecting rural libraries to services more readily available in big cities shouldn't be as much of a barrier."
- Personalized strategy — Francis (MVLS): "I would suggest that libraries really think about what gaps they are seeking to fill. I encourage them to reach out to a legal services program and have a conversation with them about what issues your library is experiencing most often, and what resources may already exist."
As a public community space, libraries are uniquely positioned to provide information and resources that can improve access to civil legal justice. Deciding how to do so can seem daunting — particularly for small and rural libraries — but finding the right partnership and determining your community's most pressing civil legal needs can make important strides toward closing the justice gap.
- Free Webinar: Civil Legal Justice: The Crucial Role of Libraries
This free webinar will be on February 11, 2020. Participants will learn about the status of civil legal justice in our system, the vital role public libraries can play in reducing the justice gap, and the live, multiweek course to be offered in April, which takes a deeper look at supporting people to navigate the complexities of the legal system. Register here.
- Improving Civil Legal Justice through Public Libraries Project
WebJunction is partnering with the nonprofit organization Legal Services Corporation to offer a free national training initiative for public library staff to help strengthen access to civil legal justice. They will give a five-week course starting in April 2020. Registration will open in February 2020. Register to get the Crossroads eNewsletter to keep informed on this.
About the Author
As the communications coordinator and editor for OCLC, Erica Melko serves as liaison to Membership and Research Division colleagues to help surface, organize, and coordinate communications needs; manage communications projects; and support the writing and editing needs for the division. Erica regularly contributes feature stories to WebJunction that highlight the innovative ways that libraries serve their communities and identify practical solutions that could be shared and adapted for use in other libraries.
This article originally appeared on the WebJunction website. It is republished here by permission of WebJunction and OCLC.