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When you can't afford an attorney, Arkansas Legal Services helps fill the 'justice gap' 

Director Vincent Morris has innovated technological solutions to help those who can't get legal aid.

click to enlarge Arkansas Legal Services Partnership Director Vincent Morris image
  • Brian Chilson
  • Arkansas Legal Services Partnership Director Vincent Morris

Imagine you have a civil legal matter. It could be a divorce, an issue with child support, debts, identity theft, a small claims dispute, a problem with a landlord. What do you do? If you have the resources, the first step is obvious: Hire a lawyer.

But what if you can't afford an attorney? That could mean you're stuck trying to navigate the legal system on your own, a process likely to prove impossibly confusing for most non-lawyers, and one in which a simple mistake could lead to adverse consequences. The result often amounts to a troubling split: a justice system for those who can afford an attorney and one for those who can't.

Trying to figure out how to provide access to justice and legal services for low-income Arkansans has been a focus for Arkansas Legal Services Partnership Director Vincent Morris for the last 10 years. Morris was recently honored with the 2014 Innovations in Equal Justice Award by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association for his role in developing technological solutions to provide legal resources to poor Arkansans.

In a criminal matter, defendants are legally entitled to a public defender if they can't afford an attorney. No such guarantee exists for low-income people in civil matters, including potentially life-altering problems, such as legal issues related to domestic violence, child custody, or housing foreclosures. In civil matters, two legal aid organizations, which combined cover the entire state — the Center for Arkansas Legal Services and Legal Aid of Arkansas — provide legal services for Arkansans who make less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level (that's around $15,000 for an individual or $30,000 for a family of four). These legal aid organizations serviced around 15,000 clients last year. But because of limited capacity, they had to turn away another 15,000 people. These were people who qualified by income and had a legal problem, but legal aid simply didn't have the resources to help them. On top of that are thousands more of the working poor who fall in what legal access advocates call the "justice gap" — people who make a little too much to qualify for legal aid but not enough to realistically afford to hire an attorney.

"About half of all Arkansans make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level," said Amy Johnson, executive director of Arkansas Access to Justice. "They would have to choose between paying for an attorney and paying for basic necessities."

Morris began as an eight-week intern at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services in 2003, while he was still a law student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Bowen School of Law. A former carpenter, Morris taught himself computer programming. "I came from a builder perspective," he said. "I thought, I could build a house, I can build anything — I can teach myself programming." He got a grant to develop technological solutions to legal access issues and began the work of revamping of the state website for legal aid services. At the time, the site amounted to little more than a business card. Morris built it into a hub of legal resources — for pro bono attorneys, legal aid attorneys and for the general public. Morris convinced court clerks and judges to refer people who were looking for basic legal resources, and used search-engine optimization techniques to make sure that folks looking for legal information in Arkansas on Google found it. The site, which can be found at arlegalservices.org, now gets almost one million page views per year.

"The first thing we had to do was get a really good, viable, highly trafficked website up," Morris said. "It's all about content — providing legal information, as well as actual legal resources, to folks for free."

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