When people turn to the internet to find legal help, they can quickly become overwhelmed by the amount of information available, and by uncertainty about which sources are reliable. To make it easier for users to access timely, relevant, and accurate guidance, legal services organizations and court self-help centers in some states have launched legal assistance portals.
Earlier this year, The Pew Charitable Trusts released a fact sheet describing the promise of legal assistance portals.1 These portals, which are part of a rapidly evolving landscape of online legal resources, have so far lacked a unified way of describing what they are and how they function. To address this gap, Pew examined the available research on portals and consulted legal and technology leaders about the various types of portals and how they operate.
With that information, Pew created a framework that describes the four essential elements a portal should provide to help users navigate a legal issue and take informed action. They should enable users to ask questions about a legal issue, interactively refine their requests, learn about their options, and connect with relevant resources—such as legal aid and social services organizations or court websites—that can help.
Under Pew’s framework, portals must be usable by members of the public without requiring disclosure of personally identifiable information. To that end, a portal must incorporate structural and design features— such as mobile responsiveness, data privacy, and accessibility—to ensure access for all users across a variety of electronic devices. For example, the Connecticut Legal Help Finder employs responsive design to adjust to the size of any device’s screen, and the Minnesota LawHelpMN portal adheres to multiple accessibility standards, including optimization for screen-reading software and high color contrast.
Pew focused its analysis on 15 publicly available, statewide, multi-issue portals, meaning they allow users to obtain information and resources on various civil legal issues in one online location. The framework was then used to examine each portal, and eight met the criteria: