The cascading effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are being felt nationwide as governments order businesses to close or restrict services; airports and train stations remain mostly empty; and people stay home. To make matters worse, roughly 33 million people have filed for unemployment—a level of job loss that has not been seen since the Great Depression—and the economic pain shows no sign of letting up. These unprecedented circumstances are reflected in the legal information that people are seeking on a statewide legal assistance portal in Minnesota, LawHelpMN. Administrators of similar portals in Michigan (Michigan Legal Help), Illinois (Illinois Legal Aid Online), and Ohio (Ohio Legal Help) are also keeping track of demands for information, helping these officials understand the types of legal issues that people in these states are facing or anticipate during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Over the past decade, organizations have created online legal assistance portals to help people understand their legal problems and connect them to the resources they urgently need. These portals allow users to search for information and referrals to organizations—legal aid providers and social service agencies, among others—that can help find relevant legal information.
Portals in these four states have seen a major increase in traffic since statewide orders to close or restrict nonessential businesses and stay at home were put in place. For example:
Michigan Legal Help saw a 65% jump in visits each day during the week of March 23 (compared with one month ago), when Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued a statewide stay-at-home order—the same week when over 129,000 residents applied for jobless claims—and a week after an order was issued to close nonessential public places, including restaurants, movie theaters, and health clubs. The site’s LiveHelp chat activity was nearly double what it was during a typical week before the pandemic. When the site experienced another 30% increase in visitors the week of March 30, “we had to upgrade our servers because they were getting overloaded and the site was slow,” said Angela Tripp, project manager of Michigan Legal Help. By April, daily visits to the Michigan portal had increased by 106% since February.
Ohio Legal Help also had to upgrade its web server capacity to accommodate the 120% growth in traffic in the month after the state put in similar restrictions. Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) experienced a 27% jump in traffic three weeks after pandemic-related orders were issued. “The crisis has shifted our interactions with each other from in-person to more technology-driven means. Social distancing and shuttering of services propels more people to online resources,” said Teri Ross, executive director at ILAO.
Similar to the Minnesota portal, the portals in Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio show that the top resources that users searched for changed dramatically in the first weeks of pandemic-related restrictions, with unemployment, public benefits, child custody and parenting time, and housing surpassing divorce, name change, finding a lawyer, and other housing and family issues.
In Illinois, for example, 8 of the top 10 Google search terms that led people to ILAO in the month since the governor ordered nonessential businesses to close or limit service were related to the loss of a job, compared with only 2 of 10 the month before. Use of the portal’s unemployment resource tools increased by 795% during the week of March 15, followed by an 85% jump in searches for food stamp information. In the four weeks that followed, during which the stay-at-home order went into effect, demand increased another 1,040% for unemployment and 251% for food stamp information. Spanish language content for these categories jumped at least 2,045% and 355%, respectively. Up to 80% of the site’s LiveHelp chats have been directly related to impacts of COVID-19, and many of the questions have been associated with rent and child support obligations and visitation.
Similarly, since the first statewide health order was issued in Ohio to close nonessential businesses, unemployment-related search terms dominated the Google queries that led people to the state’s portal, and visits to its unemployment resource page spiked 10,000%, making it the most frequented page. Users of the portal’s public benefits content went up 35%.
When the Michigan stay-at-home order was implemented during the week of March 24 (and a week after the order was issued to restrict nonessential businesses), unemployment self-help tools in the state’s portal represented 78% of the most viewed resources. By the end of the month, use of these tools had jumped at least 2,000% in some cases and as much as 7,000% in others over about 30 days. Also popular were inquiries on eviction, child support, parenting time, and public assistance, particularly on the portal’s Live Chat and after-hours email service. Similar to Illinois, this is the first time divorce-related resources were knocked off the top 10 most viewed.
All four portals used tools such as Google Analytics and Google Search Console to better understand who was visiting their sites, to match resources to the needs of people searching for information, and to identify and add needed content to help users during this unprecedented public health challenge.
Each portal now has COVID-19 resource pages that provide information on legal issues complicated by the pandemic, such as unemployment, food stamps, housing, court closures, and more. These have become some of the most searched pages. Nearly 10,000 Illinoisans, for instance, have accessed the blogs on COVID-19 and the law in the month since they were published to find answers to legal questions. This demand isn’t surprising, as Susan Choe, executive director of Ohio Legal Help, noted: “Thousands of people have lost their jobs or have been furloughed, and they’re looking for help navigating the legalities of unemployment benefits, foreclosures, evictions, and other issues they’re now facing.”
The data shared by each portal points to interesting trends for online legal information. And the wealth of information gained by analyzing changes in portal usage allows administrators to increase their assistance to users navigating the web for answers to pandemic-related legal concerns. As for what lies ahead, Angela Tripp said: “We’ve also used these stats to help inform legal aid what to prepare for, and courts what to prioritize in terms of cases when courts reopen.”
Erika Rickard is a director and Darcy White is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ civil legal system modernization initiative.