CONSUMER FORUM

Technology in libraries improves access to the legal system

Posted March 16, 2013, at 5:18 p.m.

Patrons of Maine’s public libraries will soon have a chance to hear from experts on a number of legal issues at no charge. Low income people may be able to confer one-on-one with those experts, again at no cost.

The reason is what’s becoming known as “Lawyers In Libraries.” It’s an outreach effort coordinated by the Volunteer Lawyers Project, or VLP. A grant allows VLP to arrange clinics by video conference; a lawyer speaks in real time at one location while people at libraries across the state watch and listen. After the lawyer’s presentation, viewers can ask general questions about the law, although the lawyer cannot serve as a questioner’s legal representative.

At 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 19, attorney Frank D’Alessandro will be on camera to make a presentation on landlord and tenant law. He will focus on a tenant’s rights when facing eviction, how to get a security deposit back and other basic tenant rights. Viewers will be able to take part in the video conference at public libraries in Bangor, Houlton, Cherryfield, Skowhegan and York, as well as the Maine State Library in Augusta.

If a person meets income qualifications and needs additional help, the person can contact VLP and arrange for a personal conference with an attorney. The initial no-cost conference can take up to a half hour, and the attorney will cover applicable law and offer options.

Some attorneys are offering to “unbundle” their services, so as to help lower-income clients who have limited or specific needs. Hanna Sanders is the first Access to Justice Coordinator for the State of Maine Judicial Branch. Sanders says in one example of unbundling, qualified people could get legal help when they are going through a divorce, to avoid losing their homes or to deal with custody issues.

“It’s really trying to make lawyers and the legal system more accessible,” Sanders says of the Lawyers In Libraries program. Topics covered in earlier video conferences include consumer issues, end-of-life issues and family law. All are archived at www.maine.gov/msl/commons/legal/lawyers.htm.

Legal professionals across the country take special note of May 1, which has become known as Law Day. On that day, video conferences on legal issues are expected to include more than 30 libraries statewide. Displays at those sites will include contact information for agencies that provide legal services (Pine Tree Legal Assistance and Legal Services For The Elderly, among others), details about lawyer referral and other information.

Sanders says video conferencing offers a way for legal professionals to reach people in more remote areas of Maine. After an initial, “distant” conference, the lawyer may refer the consumer to several lawyers close to his or her home if additional work is needed.

When consumers face legal issues, there is only one legal system they can deal with. “When you don’t have an option and you don’t have any knowledge about the system, you are flying blind,” Sanders says.

Organizers of the series are the Maine Justice Action Group Collaboration on Innovation, Technology and Equal Access to Justice which includes the Maine State Bar Association, Pine Tree Legal Assistance, Maine’s public libraries, the Volunteer Lawyers Project, the State of Maine Judicial Branch and other organizations interested in helping people access the legal resources they need.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live.com.

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