Congratulations Maryland. District Court users statewide can now get statewide self-help services by internet chat or phone, as reported by the Baltimore Sun.
In its first month of hosting live chats, 850 people have used the service. In comparison, the self-help center assisted a record 626 people in August. Officials said chats have been initiated by people in every county except Kent and Somerset.
Most users contact the center with issues that are routine for District Court — landlord-tenant and debt collection disputes, and small claims, said Pamela Ortiz, executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission. About 68 percent of chats take 15 minutes or less, and another 25 percent last up to a half-hour, she said.
One advantage is that the attorneys can provide web links to helpful information during the chat. Those who participate can also request that a transcript of the chat be emailed to them. Some, typically those with complex legal issues, will bring in their paperwork after a chat, said Sarah Frush, who supervises the center.
Phone services have just gone live, with over one hundred served in the first week.
As in Minnesota, the cost effective technique is for an existing brick and mortar center in a court to take on the responsibility for providing statewide help (in Minnesota’s case that is by phone and co-browsing). The pioneer for the statewide concept was Alaska.
While it would be a mistake to imagine that providing such services is cost free, it is nonetheless true that providing services statewide is politically much more appealing that trying to raise money for a single location pilot, or a slow county by county expansion. In Maryland this service is provided by Legal Aid under contract to the Courts. The hope is that pro bono attorneys will be able to provide chat assistance remotely, which would be very cost effective, and a particularly easy way for lawyers to contribute. It is interesting from a triage point of view that about 22% of users are being referred to legal representation.