Using Internet Forums for Service Delivery
Hello everyone! There are a growing number of ways to provide legal advice online, and Tennessee Alliance for Legal Services (TALS) has pioneered another: the Internet forum.
Many of you are probably familiar with Avvo, a forum website for health- and law-related issues, where anyone can ask a question and professionals can answer. Questions can range from DUIs to child support issues to bankruptcy, and the only information publicly displayed about the asker is their location (city, state). Lawyers (who are publicly identified) can answer the question or “agree” with other lawyers’ answers. They are rated and reviewed on the site by both clients and peers in the categories Experience, Industry Recognition, and Professional Conduct, as well as an overview of practice areas, contact information, licensure, experience, and education. Any visitor to the site, with or without an account (which is very easy to create) can see all of the questions and answers.
Online Tennessee Justice works in a similar, but much more private manner. First-time visitors to the site answer a series of questions about their income level, assets, county of residence, and whether or not they are currently incarcerated. Tennessee residents who are not incarcerated and at or below 250 percent of the poverty line are deemed eligible to use the site. They are then directed to a question form which asks them to categorize their problem (family, housing, benefits, etc), enter a court date if there is one, and then describe their problem and ask questions. For those not approved, there is a list of links to “Other Places to Get Legal Help.”
From the other side, attorneys who want to volunteer with the site can register and fill out information about what organization or firm they work for, their Board of Professional Responsibility (BPR) number, and county of practice. Once TALS approves them, attorneys can look through submitted requests and answer whichever ones they’d like to; they can also sign up for alerts when specific types of questions are posted. The only personal information that attorneys can see about clients is their name, which is provided so that a rudimentary conflict check can be performed. Clients cannot see any information about the lawyer who is helping them.
No relationship is established between TALS and the client, and only a very limited relationship is established between the attorney and the client (a term I use for lack of a better one). Lawyers can choose to identify themselves to clients by allowing phone calls, emails, or other contact – but that decision is up to the lawyer.
So far, after about a year of being live, the system has registered over 330 volunteer attorneys and 2,553 eligible clients. 2,228 questions have been posed and so far, they’ve all been answered within 30 days (after which time, an email would theoretically be sent to the client, apologizing that they could not be helped and removing the question from the site). Questions are color coded by the amount of time they have been waiting, and most are answered within 48 hours. Clients can post follow-up questions if needed.
The advantages of this site are fairly easy to see: it increases access for clients who may live far away from a legal aid office, or may have been rejected from the office for being over-income, but still can’t afford market price for a lawyer. It allows attorneys to take part in pro bono work from their desks and in odd moments, as well as racking up CLE credits (in a 5:1 ratio; i.e. 5 hours of work on the site equates to 1 hour of CLE credit). For more information about Online TN Justice, see the video produced by TALS.
As far as the technical requirements for a system like Online TN Justice go, you would probably need to invest pretty seriously in some equipment, as well as hiring a developer for a short period of time. TALS had donations from Dell and Microsoft (which allowed them to set the income requirement so high at 250 percent of the federally-defined poverty level), but the value of the two servers and other equipment needed was around $5,500. The coding was created by programmers at Baker Donelson (TALS estimated that their work is worth about $40,000). Baker Donelson says that it is happy to extend the empty database (without references to Tennessee), as well as the coding free of charge to any other state wishing to create a similar website. The other specs are as follows:
- Web Server
- Processor: Quad-Core AMD Opteron™ Processor 2378 2.39 GHz
- Memory (RAM):16.0 GB
- Operating System: Windows Server 2008 Enterprise without Hyper-V SP2
- System Type: 64-bit Operating System
- Operating System Drive: 130GB (Only needs 60 GB)
- Data Drive: 270GB (Not needed)
- Software: Internet Information Services (IIS) 7, ASP.NET Framework 4.0
- SQL Server: SAME AS ABOVE
- The Data Drive is required on this server.
- Software: Microsoft SQL Server 2008 Enterprise Edition R2 (64-bit)
- The developer will need Visual Studio 2010.
Setting up the whole operation is estimated to take about two months. Needless to say, it would be quite an undertaking, but could potentially be very beneficial to both clients and attorneys.
Setting up a system like Online TN Justice does, in addition, take us into the realm of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA, 1996). For those of you not familiar with this Act, it basically provides immunity from liability for providers and users of an interactive computer service that publishes information provided by others, with limited exceptions for criminal legal issues and intellectual property:
No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider [Communications Decency Act, Section 230(c)(1)].
Before the days of the Internet, there were similar laws about the publishers and distributors of books and newspapers. Essentially, publishers could be held liable for offensive content, while distributors were not expected to censor every book or paper that passed through their hands, and therefore were not held liable. In the early 1990s, questions began to arise as to where “Internet service providers” fell in this framework. At first, they were considered simply distributors, and therefore immune to suits - unless they tried to remove offensive comments or content. In that case, they became legally classified as publishers, and were held liable if they, for example, didn’t catch one offensive comment. Therefore, service providers were inadvertently encouraged to do nothing about offensive material on their websites, so that they wouldn’t be held liable. This made very little sense, so Section 230 of the CDA was created, and providers are now protected from the legal ramifications of information posted by a third party.
What Section 230 will protect you from: Defamation and speech-based torts, as well as issues of privacy, misappropriation, and negligence (for this last one, see the 2007 case Doe v. MySpace). It allows you to make typical editorial decisions such as whether or not to publish, remove, or edit content; encouraging users to post to the site; paying a third party to submit content; providing drop-down menus to facilitate the submission of content; and even leaving content on the site after you have been notified of its defamatory nature.
What Section 230 will not protect you from: Criminal or communications privacy law, and intellectual property claims at the federal level (such as copyright or trademark infringement). It will not protect you if you alter content in a way that changes its fundamental meaning; nor will it protect (as funny as it sounds) the discriminatory use of drop-down menus. It will also not protect you leaving offensive content on the site if you’ve promised to take it down (promissory estoppel). Additionally, Section 230 will not protect the actual creator of the offensive content.
Overall, Section 230 is a pretty good safeguard but it should never be necessary or come into play at all if you use a site like Online TN Justice as it’s intended. If all goes well, you’ll forget about Section 230 of the CDA entirely.
If you’re interested in following the TALS model for creating a digital pro bono clinic, you can get in touch With Erik Cole at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions. In addition to answering your technical or ethical questions, he’s agreed to help you get the code necessary for starting a similar site, as well as provide you with “dummy login” information so that you can walk through Online TN Justice from the lawyers’ side. To hear him talk about Online TN Justice in a recent Pro Bono Net/LSNTAP webinar, see this video and skip to 32:38 (or watch the whole video, that’s fine too!)
Happy helping, everyone!