The recent Report from the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission includes, in addition to many achievements and interesting ideas, a fascinating statistic about social workers in nonlawyer roles.
The Third Commission, through its Social Services Committee, continued to focus on how advocates at social services agencies and nonprofits serve as legal advocates for their clients. This past July, the Committee surveyed over 500 social service agency workers regarding their role in providing assistance to consumers regarding legal situations, with several interesting findings:
- The vast majority of surveyed workers (80+%) have answered their client’s legal questions;
- Workers lack overall knowledge of existing legal resources and legal websites. For example, fewer than 50% of respondents used the masslegalhelp.org website;
- Fewer than 40% of workers knew which legal service program served their area; and
- Workers have a great interest and need for additional information and training.
In October 2015, the committee convened a meeting of social service workers and legal service advocates to discuss the findings and to recommend next steps to the Third Commission. While seven recommendations were ultimately made to the Third Commission, the Committee focused initially on creating a website for social service workers. This proposed website – called, for now, the “helphub” – would be designed to educate and assist social service workers and to empower them to provide their clients with the legal information they need. This website would give links to other existing legal resources and websites (as opposed to providing such content itself) and would also have a “live chat” feature whereby, optimally, social service workers could ask lawyers questions and get real-time answers. Rosie’s Place has offered funding for a prototype website.
That speaks for itself. A few observations.
There appears to be no worry (as indeed there should not be) about social workers acting inappropriately in terms of providing legal information.
I am not clear about the relationship of prior content to the new website. While I agree that full use of exiting content makes sense. It is far from clear to me, however, that the website would not be far stronger with some content that reflects the special characteristics and capabilities of social workers. Missing this opportunity would be a major mistake.
Similarly, its worth exploring what more social workers can do in terms of helping with information, that others without such qualifications can not necessarily do. These issues are somewhat explored in the paper on nonlawyer practice that David Udell and I wrote.