Online Service Connects Citizens With Volunteer Lawyers

SALISBURY – Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service (MVLS) launched its first Cyber Civil Clinic Wednesday at Wicomico Public Library’s downtown branch, making Salisbury the first location in the state to use web-based video portals that connect residents with volunteer lawyers.

The program is a joint effort between library and MVLS officials to provide free and accessible legal advice to low-income citizens in rural counties in the region.

Susan Francis, MVLS deputy director, said Scott Mahler, the library’s adult services manager, reached out to her in the fall, after receiving many questions from community members about legal issues.

“They received so many questions,” Francis said. “Many were navigating issues on their own without an attorney and the librarians were fielding the legal questions.”

After making a trip to Wicomico County in December, Francis said the team decided to launch Maryland’s first Cyber Civil Clinic from the computers at the downtown library.

Using Google Hangouts, attendees at Wednesday’s clinic spent the two-hour session submitting online intake applications and connecting with lawyers at the MVLS office in Baltimore.

On the other side of the Bay Bridge, MVLS lawyers guided them through their legal questions and vetted community members for further representation needs.

“The other issue is if they do have a substantive area where they need full representation, we can place them with a volunteer attorney,” Francis said.

She said the Wicomico County Library is tasked with doing much of the leg work on-site to ensure community members can sign up and utilize the clinics on a monthly basis.

“They are relying on us and we are relying on them,” she said. “We are leaning on the library for that piece of the effort.”

Mahler said many community members participating in the clinics are looking to expunge criminal records that prohibit them from finding jobs at the library’s job search center, but added that anyone who meets the requirements can use the new service.

“In a perfect world, we’d love for people to come in, get their stuff expunged or shielded, come back and use our job search center, and get a job that they didn’t think they were able to get because of a legal impediment,” he said. “But you don’t have to be looking for a job to benefit from this.”

Mahler said the new clinics will take a burden off of local volunteer lawyers who are overrun with cases and will give citizens across the region access to lawyers in other metropolitan areas.

“We are almost like a satellite campus for (MVLS),” he said. “We’d love to do it in our Pittsville branch or even at our Centreville branch. The lawyers would love to do it throughout the region.”

Francis said MVLS lawyers helping Wicomico County residents can provide advice for a wide range of cases – divorce and child custody proceedings, landlord-tenant disputes, bankruptcy and more – and can file expungement petitions at no cost to participants.

The program is funded by a Maryland Bar Foundation grant, which provided lawyers in the MVLS office with laptops, headsets and cameras to assist clients. She added that the library’s capability to provide residents with electronic equipment and technical support was one of the many reasons they decided to pursue the Cyber Civil Clinics.

Although this will be Maryland’s first attempt at the online clinics, Francis said volunteer lawyers in other states – like Alaska and New Mexico – have already implemented similar programs to bridge the gap between metropolitan and rural areas.

“We decided to start small and see what the need is,” she said. “We will tweak it as it goes along.”

Mahler said community members have expressed interest in the program, and nearly ten people signed up for the first month’s clinic. He added that individuals can sign up at the library’s downtown branch.

“We are hoping to get more people,” he said. “Once the word spreads, and there is success, people will actually see the benefit.”

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.