LawHelp Interactive offers free online legal forms to provide essential assistance to those with unmet civil legal needs. LawHelp Interactive (LHI) provides an easy-to-follow process that empowers individuals without legal counsel to create legal documents on their own.
LHI is an especially essential and powerful tool for rural residents of the US, more than 14 million people, who face unique barriers to accessing justice. The Georgetown Journal on Law and Poverty reported that only about 2% of small legal firms are located in rural areas. This lack of availability and supply of legal experts and tools for legal support can lead to the creation of legal deserts – areas where residents, even those who can afford to pay, have extremely limited access to legal support. Government assistance in its current form widens this access-to-justice gap: rural states receive less federal and state funding for legal aid because this funding is issued on a per capita basis rather than being directly tied to need.
On the LHI platform, rural residents can easily create legal documents through high quality online forms created by expert attorneys from courts and nonprofit legal aid organizations. Residents of rural areas can use LHI forms for free – without incurring high legal expenses or traveling long distances to get to an urban area for help. In rural areas where there is often limited investment in legal services, including legal self-help and access to justice initiatives, forms powered by LHI are truly a legal lifeline. In some regions, the LHI powered forms are one of the only available resources to prepare needed legal documents that can be completed in a timely manner. That’s why LHI and its partners are committed to providing legal forms for free, especially because our resources are often the only help available in critical areas of law such as family law, housing, and guardianships.
While LHI forms are used all across the country to assist in a wide variety of civil legal needs, a review of LHI form use in 2020 shows that people in rural communities use LHI’s forms at a disproportionately high rate. Nationally, around 14% of Americans live in rural areas, yet 32% of LHI survey respondents reported living in a rural area. To further understand the increased use of LHI forms in rural communities, Pro Bono Net conducted a review of LHI’s 2020 evaluation, focusing on usage in states with a high percentage of rural residents.
First, to understand the magnitude of free online form use in rural areas, it is important to know that most of the form use through the LHI platform comes from states with large urban areas, including NY, CA, MI, and IL.
So in order to best assess the needs of LHI users in rural areas, we looked at data from Maine, Kansas, Iowa, and Arkansas, states having a significant percentage of residents living in rural areas. According to the National Center for Access to Justice, these states all have fewer than 35 civil legal aid attorneys per 10,000 low income residents. Not surprisingly, as the pandemic resulted in heightened civil legal needs for many, usage of LHI in rural states has been increasing. In 2020, these states saw an increase of 16.8%.
All data cited above leads to the conclusion that national infrastructures like LHI are key to preserving access to justice for a significant portion of our rural population, and that rural areas need an infusion of funding to improve the legal services available for residents. Lack of a legal market or inability to pay due to high poverty and high unemployment trends in vast regions of the country means that foundations and funders at the local, state, and federal level, prioritize supporting tools with long track records of trust and use by residents in those areas.
Residents of rural legal deserts should not be doomed to a systemic and perpetual lack of access to justice. Looking towards the future, LHI will continue to provide forms for free to end users while seeking additional revenues to ensure the costs of use can be covered to continue meeting the needs of rural residents.