By Virginia Martin

A new limited scope volunteer opportunity has come to the Granite State in the form of New Hampshire Free Legal Answers sponsored and coordinated by the NHBA Pro Bono Program in partnership with the ABA’s innovative, online “Free Legal Answers” initiative. March marks the New Hampshire launch of this virtual legal advice portal for low-income people (household incomes of 250 percent of poverty or below) to pose their civil legal questions for volunteer attorneys to answer.

The advantages of the program are two-fold: it increases access for low-income people to basic legal information and advice via the convenience of the internet and also expands opportunities for attorneys to volunteer at a time and place of their choosing with services limited only to advice and no expectation of further representation.

Attorneys can register to participate at nh.freelegalanswers.org and must respond to the email received from the system that checks for authenticity of the request before the process is complete. For participating attorneys, the ABA provides primary malpractice insurance coverage, with secondary coverage provided by NH Pro Bono.

Providing services through NH Free Legal Answers is allowed under PCC Rule 6.5, “Nonprofit and Court-Annexed Limited Legal Services Programs.” The NH Supreme Court’s 2018 comment to the rule specifically references the ABA Free Legal Answers website and the purpose of attorney participation “to increase access to advice and information to clients who cannot afford an attorney.”

The comment further defines services to “include reasonably contemporaneous communication with a client, such as through an email exchange, online chat session, or other online messaging service, directly related to the matter initially discussed.”

From the experience of other jurisdictions, questions run the gamut from consumer and employment issues to housing and family law, which comprise about 40 percent of inquiries. A major benefit of the program is that attorneys select only those questions they wish to answer and can subscribe to a specific category. To date, more than 58,000 questions have been answered in more than 40 other states currently participating in Free Legal Answers.

The website includes resources for both attorneys and clients. Over-income clients are directed to NHBA’s Lawyer Referral Service.

Pro Bono is currently engaging in both attorney recruitment and public outreach. On March 6, the Pro Bono Director spoke at the Charles Doe Inn of Court in Durham, and future speaking engagements are planned. In addition to the other legal services providers, Pro Bono is reaching out to social service agencies, government programs serving low-income people and public libraries. Libraries are especially key to program success given public access to computers with internet access to the public.

In its 2017 report on the justice gap, the federal Legal Services Corporation found 86 percent of low-income people experiencing a legal issue received no or insubstantial assistance. NH Free Legal Answers offers a way to increase the numbers of low-income people receiving basic legal assistance, while also giving attorneys a new, 21st century way of volunteering.

For more information, contact Pro Bono Program Director Ginny Martin, gmartin@nhbar.org, or (603) 715-3221.