A legal self-help center at the District Court in Glen Burnie is now offering free legal advice beyond Anne Arundel County, extending its reach statewide via the Internet and a call-in service launched last week.
"This is a way to expand the service throughout the state," said Ben C. Clyburn, chief judge of the District Court.
Two-thirds of people forgo an attorney for civil matters in District Courts, Clyburn said, many because they can't afford a lawyer. Therefore, people need access to basic legal information, the judge said.
To meet that need, the walk-in center began as a test program almost two years ago. People can come to the self-help center office without an appointment and receive legal advice from an attorney, help completing court paperwork and referrals to other services. Lawyers at the center, however, do not represent them. The center has helped more than 10,000 people since it opened. However, a lack of space and tight budgets made adding walk-in centers in other District Courts out of the question.
But those in need of advice can now chat online with the center's four lawyers. Users can remain anonymous and there are no income restrictions.
Clyburn said the number of people using the chat service is higher than he expected.
In its first month of hosting live chats, 850 people have used the service. In comparison, the self-help center assisted a record 626 people in August. Officials said chats have been initiated by people in every county except Kent and Somerset.
Most users contact the center with issues that are routine for District Court — landlord-tenant and debt collection disputes, and small claims, said Pamela Ortiz, executive director of the Maryland Access to Justice Commission. About 68 percent of chats take 15 minutes or less, and another 25 percent last up to a half-hour, she said.
One advantage is that the attorneys can provide web links to helpful information during the chat. Those who participate can also request that a transcript of the chat be emailed to them. Some, typically those with complex legal issues, will bring in their paperwork after a chat, said Sarah Frush, who supervises the center.
When court records begin to go online in 2012 or 2013, the attorneys in Glen Burnie may be able to access court documents online as they chat or speak with people.
The pilot program began with a $320,000 contract with the Legal Aid Bureau for two lawyers plus two staffers. The contract between the state judiciary and Legal Aid is now $560,000, and the number of lawyers has doubled.
To access the chat and phone service, go to mdcourts.gov and click on self-help service under District Court.