The COVID-19 pandemic has altered daily life for American families. Millions of jobs have already been lost—along with paychecks. Governments are ordering businesses to close and people to stay at home. And public services such as state and local courts are restricting access or closing their doors. These new circumstances are also reflected in the legal questions that people grapple with.
Since March 16, when state and local leaders in Minnesota began putting restrictions in place—ranging from local orders to close public-facing services to a statewide stay-at-home order—LawHelpMN, the online legal assistance portal for the state, has experienced an uptick in requests for information about housing, government benefits, child custody, and employment. In fact, approximately 64% of the top 10 Google search terms that led people to LawHelpMN the week of March 24 related to the loss of a job.
Over the past decade, organizations have created online legal assistance portals to help people understand their legal problems and get connected to relevant resources. These portals allow users to search for information and referrals to organizations—legal aid providers and social service agencies, among others—that can help when legal information is urgently needed. To better understand the legal concerns that are emerging or could emerge during this pandemic, portal providers in Minnesota are examining the questions and issues that people are navigating.
In the Minnesota legal assistance portal, the top 10 resources that people search for have changed dramatically since the start of the pandemic and now include COVID-19: Renters’ Rights, Unemployment Benefits, Expedited (Emergency) Food Stamps, and Parenting Time (Visitation) and Parenting Plans—a vast departure from resources that were popular before the restrictions, which included Getting a Divorce, Powers of Attorney, and My Car Was Towed and are no longer in the top 10.
Just two weeks into the pandemic restrictions, navigation to fact sheets on unemployment, food stamps, and child custody increased 2,261%, 547%, and 144%, respectively. However, this growth does not include navigation to new fact sheets on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on related issues such as renters’ rights and foreclosure. The demand for information about job loss and government benefits is not unexpected, given the millions of Americans who have filed for unemployment in recent weeks.
J. Singleton, program manager at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid who manages LawHelpMN, reports that the pandemic’s impact on child custody is one of the more surprising categories of questions asked through a live chat on LawHelpMN and the MN Legal Advice site. “So basically, one parent being concerned about sending their children to the other parent because they think the other parent isn’t being cautious enough or they’re concerned the other parent was exposed,” Singleton said. “Or alternatively, we have seen parents concerned that the other parent will use COVID as a pretext to deny time.” With many courts closing or restricting operations throughout the country, settling child custody disputes in court might not be possible for some parents.
To help Minnesotans navigate these issues, the portal now has a COVID-19 response page that provides direct links to these top resources, along with information on social service agencies that offer additional pandemic-related resources. This page has been the No. 1 visited resource on the portal since it was implemented. Staff members at LawHelpMN are in close contact with legal aid, the State Law Library, and community partners to track emerging legal trends and create responsive self-help materials.
The data shared by LawHelpMN could point to an interesting trend for online legal information. By analyzing usage, these portals will be better able to assist users with their legal issues and meet the legal needs of Minnesota residents. As this unprecedented public health challenge continues, the data from these tools could signal the types of court cases that are likely to occur during and after the pandemic. It is important that courts be prepared for these issues to ensure access to justice.
Erika Rickard is a director and Darcy White is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ civil legal system modernization initiative.