Legal assistance portals, which help visitors assess legal needs and find relevant resources, have experienced a significant increase in traffic since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, as legal concerns evolve, portal managers report sustained use of some resources, particularly those focused on unemployment benefits, and increased activity for others, including those related to housing issues and domestic violence.
In four portals run by civil legal aid organizations—Michigan Legal Help, Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO), Ohio Legal Help, and LawHelpMN in Minnesota—administrators are tracking and responding to users’ needs. How the portals are being used demonstrates their potential to help people experiencing legal problems during this pandemic and beyond to better understand and exercise their legal rights.
As states have enacted eviction moratoriums or issued guidance on related court proceedings, portal administrators are working with local legal service providers to address often-complex issues. All four portals have resource pages that focus on new rules for housing as many Americans struggle to pay their rents.
In Illinois, for example, ILAO frequently updates its blog on housing-related legal guidance, which covers rent payments, rental assistance, evictions, and resources for homeowners. Michigan Legal Help recently released a new tool for tenants seeking rent relief. If the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act protects their housing and those protections have been violated, the site can help them draft pleadings to defend against an eviction.
Even in states with several safeguards for tenants, many residents still face eviction risks, and portals report significant use of housing-related resources. LawHelpMN, a project of the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, has a page titled COVID-19: Renters’ Rights During the Pandemic that has consistently been one of the most visited pages. Figure 1 compares this page with two other popular pages: COVID-19: Changes in Unemployment Benefits During the Pandemic and Tenants’ Rights in Minnesota.
Portal administrators also have seen more searches and interactions with resources linked to domestic violence issues, which experts believe are likely to be exacerbated by the stressful realities of the pandemic. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports that the economic downturn, isolation, and uncertainty associated with COVID-19 “may stimulate violence in families where it didn’t exist before and worsen situations in homes where mistreatment and violence has been a problem.”
Portal users can find resources on various topics—such as legal help, safety plans, protection orders, and no-contact orders—and learn what to do if they need to leave rental housing early.
In Illinois, ILAO saw a 220% increase in visitors accessing the Spanish version of the safety plan information between mid-March and the end of August compared with the same time range before March 15. This page includes guidance such as important phone numbers, what to do during an assault, and how to leave an abuser.
Teri Ross, director of ILAO, said Google searches that brought people to the site for information on the difference between assault and battery for the weeks of June 7 and 12 were almost double the number in the first two weeks of March, before the start of pandemic-related stay-at-home orders. Ross said possible reasons for that shift include increases in domestic violence as well as charges associated with Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the state.
These changes do not surprise Ross. “The pandemic has intensified power differentials in societal roles—landlords/tenants, employer/employee, law enforcement/resident, creditor/debtor—but none more critical than in households facing domestic abuse,” Ross said.
By providing information to those experiencing domestic violence, portals can help them better understand their legal options for protecting their rights.
In the first two weeks of March, before states had issued stay-at-home orders, unemployment resources on the portals were not widely used. In fact, these pages were not among any of the sites’ top 10 most visited. Following the pandemic-related shutdowns and the rapid escalation of job losses, visits to unemployment resources increased significantly and have remained high.
For example, Ohio Legal Help’s main unemployment help page went from just seven page views during the first two weeks of March to 5,765 from April 12 to 25. That trend then accelerated: a combined 10,751 views in the first two weeks of July.
Susan Choe, executive director of Ohio Legal Help, noted that the increases in July occurred despite a decreasing state unemployment rate. She said she thinks actions by the state Department of Job and Family Services to suspend more than 270,000 Ohioans from unemployment help because of fraud concerns could be a factor. That page now also provides information about how to verify eligibility for unemployment benefits.
Visitors searched for other financial assistance as well. “It’s been interesting to see not only the legal trends in our data but the pulse of what users are searching for,” Choe said. In July, for example, searches in Ohio for information about stimulus payments increased, perhaps amid concerns that federal COVID relief payments were about to expire.
Portal administrators also have seen big fluctuations in the number of people seeking information about benefits such as food stamps. In the weeks after Michigan issued its stay-at-home order and the state unemployment rate spiked to 24% in April from 4.3% in March, Michigan Legal Help saw a significant increase in the number of people who used its calculator for food stamp eligibility. Use peaked the week of April 6 and was up 178% compared with the first week of March.
Use of the calculator has since fallen. The week of July 13, it was about 30% lower than the first week of March and 75% lower than the April peak.
“I believe the drop-off in requests is the impact of people applying for and getting food stamps, or of people applying for and receiving unemployment benefits, making food stamps not as urgent,” explained Angela Tripp, director of Michigan Legal Help.
With the pandemic still unfolding, the types of legal information that people seek on these portals will continue to evolve. Administrators have developed resources and worked with partners, such as local legal aid offices, to meet growing and sometimes shifting needs.
That’s critical and will continue, stressed J. Singleton, LawHelpMN’s program manager. “As the impacts of the pandemic evolve, we’re working with legal aid and community partners to refine the type of content we create and how we deliver it—for example, by providing more video content and increasing our activity on social media channels,” she said.
Erika Rickard is a director and Casey Chiappetta is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ civil legal system modernization initiative.