The People's Law: Free Legal Help and Legal Research on the Web

By Ebbinghouse, Carol | Searcher, April 2006 | Go to article overview

The People's Law: Free Legal Help and Legal Research on the Web


Ebbinghouse, Carol, Searcher


Over the last 5 years, since the last time I broached this topic, (1) free legal resources on the Internet have gotten better and better. More and more legal information has come onto the Web for nonlawyers. Certain jurisdictions have risen to the task of improving access to the legal system for the people who can least afford good legal representation.

Many sites and organizations have demonstrated a high level of commitment to providing quality legal services and information for the lay person in English as well as other languages.

First the Legal Problems, Then the Solutions

Do you or someone you know need legal information and/or advice? Perhaps the landlord has given your friend an eviction notice? Or maybe you think you had better write your will or set up a living trust before you embark on your dream vacation abroad? Or perhaps you have just discovered that someone has defrauded your aging parent out of thousands of dollars? And then there's that black sheep of the family who calls you at midnight to tell you he has been arrested?

Well, I hope you live in California, because according to the Los Angeles Daily Journal, (2) "Not long ago, people who couldn't afford an attorney in California and who fell through the financial cracks of legal aid were left to handle their civil legal battles on their own. Now, California is leading a nationwide trend toward providing assistance for self-represented litigants, a move most judges and legal aid advocates say is increasing access to justice." These self-help resources are described as "a real service to people who for one reason or another have chosen to represent themselves .... They are far better prepared and can get through the system in a far more efficient way." On the other hand, the article notes, "some in the legal aid community, which helped to establish many of California's self-help centers, fear the proliferation of these programs will aid in the institutionalization of a second-tier justice system for the poor." In response, one voice protested, "You don't tell hungry people that you won't cook them a hamburger because you would rather give them a steak." Whether self-representation is the best, or just the only way one can access the legal system, the fact is that many cannot afford an attorney. And services are emerging to meet this need.

California is indeed in a leadership position with in-person self-help centers (3) with lawyer assistance, online resources (4) from the courts, state agencies, and nonprofit organizations (5)--even links to legal help in other states [http://www.court info.ca.gov/selfhelp/lowcost/other states.html.

Who Do We Have to Thank for All These Services?

Certainly the government--state and federal, legislative, regulatory, and judicial branches--have accomplished a lot recently. At the beginning, the information they provided on the Web was more like raw data; it needed mining by professionals. But now their services are becoming genuinely helpful, easy to use, and include search capabilities that are more intuitive--even Google-based. Now they are working with other organizations, providing real online help. For instance, I-CAN! is one service that helps the lay person with such tasks as helping users "create court paperwork and educate themselves" about how to proceed in their own legal matters. I-CAN! modules operate on touch-screen kiosks and workstations at locations easily accessible to low-income persons such as courthouses, legal aid offices, community centers, women's shelters, and libraries. This site contains a video guide that helps the user select and fill out appropriate court forms in civil matters such as Domestic Violence, Unlawful Detainer, Paternity, and more. I-CAN! is free of charge and is available in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. I-CAN! was developed by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County and is sponsored by organizations including: Legal Services Corporation, Judicial Council of California, State Bar of California, Orange County Superior Court, Orange County District Attorney, Orange County Public Library System, Disneyland, Cities of Irvine and Fullerton [http://www. …

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