In another sign of the overwhelming impact of the pandemic, data released from the American Bar Association shows the number of questions submitted by low-income individuals and families seeking help through the online program ABA Free Legal Answers has doubled since the outbreak of COVID-19.
The online service, launched in 2016, enables income-eligible households to ask a question that volunteer attorneys can then answer, providing civil legal guidance. The national program had garnered 100,000 questions by March 2020, but by Jan. 31, 2022, the program had recorded 205,592 inquiries.
“For those who cannot afford an attorney and have nowhere else to turn, Free Legal Answers serves as a critical resource,” ABA President Reginald Turner said in a news release. “Sadly, hitting the milestone of 200,000 questions underscores the need for expanding free and affordable civil legal services.”
Indiana was one of the first states to participate in the Free Legal Answers program through the website, Indiana Free Legal Answers. Today, 45 states and more than 10,000 attorneys across the country are participating.
Since 2016, Indiana’s website has received 15,090 inquiries with 437 attorneys registered to offer assistance, according to data from Pro Bono Indiana. Mirroring the national trend, Indiana recorded a significant uptick of 6,623 questions in 2020 and 2021 compared to 8,467 questions submitted in the previous four years.
The ABA data ranks the residents of Indiana along with Texas, Florida, Illinois and Tennessee as generating the most questions. Attorneys from Florida, Tennessee, Illinois, Texas and North Carolina had the highest participation rates.
Nationally, more than 43,400 hours of pro bono legal service were submitted with 10,288 volunteer attorneys registered to participate.
“We are proud of the more than 10,000 volunteer lawyers nationwide who are helping to meet these important legal needs and urge other attorneys to step up and offer assistance as well,” Turner said.
The ABA noted that the rapid increase in the number of questions during the past two years tracks to the emergence of COVID-19, starting in March 2020. During the first few months of the public health emergency, ABA Free Legal Answers temporarily increased its question limit per client while many states raised the income or asset eligibility cap.
Not every question submitted will be answered. The Indiana program has responded to 8,983, or 59.5%, of the inquiries made since 2016. However, that rate jumped to 77.0% in 2020 before falling back to 57.4% in 2021.
Indiana data shows that family and housing issues dominate Hoosiers’ legal needs. The top three areas of the law generating the most questions since 2016 were custody and visitation issues, with 2,872 questions submitted and 1,622 answered; divorce, separation and annulment cases, with 2,006 inquiries and 1,289 answers; and nonsubsidized housing issues, with 1,648 questions and 1,131 answers.
Nationally, the types and volumes of questions have remained relatively steady, with roughly four out of 10 questions, or 40%, relating to family and children-related legal matters, 15% stemming from housing and homelessness and 10% involving consumer/finance.
Additional details on ABA Free Legal Answers can be found in the January 2022 report.