Like legal aid offices across the country, western Pennsylvania’s Neighborhood Legal Services suffers from a chronic lack of resources.
The nonprofit serves low-income residents of Allegheny, Beaver, Butler, and Lawrence counties in a range of civil matters, including evictions, wage theft and denial of public benefits like Medicaid and food stamps. But it estimates that in 2019 it had to turn away two-thirds of the roughly 23,000 people who experienced legal problems.
Amy Carpenter, Neighborhood’s managing attorney for case management systems, said Neighborhood receives so many phone calls from potential clients that intake staffers struggle to keep up.
The calls usually go to voicemail, Carpenter said. “But some days the volume is so high that we may end up having to shut the phones off because we can't handle anymore messages.”
Carpenter thinks a new online survey that Neighborhood launched in the spring could help to relieve the burden. Called the “Legal Wellness Check-up,” the free, anonymous questionnaire lets users diagnose their own legal issues. For example, they might learn they qualify for government benefits that weren’t previously aware of, or they could be entitled to additional child custody rights.
“So we really want to have people explore what's going on in their lives and tell them ... this … looks like something we could help with,” Carpenter said. “Or, this particular organization has the expertise to deal with it, you should call them.”
Depending on respondents’ answers, the Legal Wellness tool provides details on how to reach Neighborhood attorneys or other service providers such as the public defender’s office, pro bono law programs, or social service agencies. In this way, users can screen themselves without ever calling Neighborhood, and thus help to reduce the strain on intake staff.
Carpenter noted that, due to a lack of resources, her office has long had to triage entire categories of cases.
“A perfect example: We don't handle divorces,” Carpenter said. “So we'll refer them to the Divorce Law Project [a pro-bono program run by the Allegheny County Bar Foundation]. And so that sort of frees up our resources to help those most vulnerable people in need.”
The Legal Wellness Check-up can also prevent future crises by helping users to identify legal problems proactively, Carpenter said.
“Somebody may present to us and say, ‘Oh, I'm getting evicted,’ Carpenter said. “And then … by asking questions, we can figure out they're being evicted because they lost their job, applied for unemployment, were denied benefits, [even though] they really had a good case for getting benefits.”
“And had … they had contacted us at that time, we could have helped them” get unemployment assistance, Carpenter added.
The Legal Wellness Check-up takes an estimated 15 minutes to complete. Once enough people participate, Carpenter said, Neighborhood will analyze what issues they tend to experience.