COVID-19 Legal Need Checklist is the Latest Tool to Help Washingtonians in Need

Accounting woman in a COVID mask

It’s been said that the first step to addressing a problem is recognizing there one. But for many Washingtonians, that’s precisely why so few people access or even seek help for their problems.

According to the 2015 Civil Legal Needs Study, 76 percent of Washingtonians who experienced a civil legal problem did not get the help they need to solve it. Many people are unaware that there’s even a legal solution to their problems, yet 70 percent of low-income households face at least one significant civil legal problem every year.

These are things we already know and have known for some time. Then COVID-19 made everything worse.

In 2020, the Access to Justice (ATJ) Board established a COVID-19 Response Work Group to collaborate with other organizations in identifying and addressing community needs and systemic issues that arose or were exacerbated by the pandemic. The effort was carried out in collaboration with the ATJ’s Delivery of Services Committee.

The result is now available and being distributed throughout the state in the form of a COVID-19 Legal Needs Checklist. Available both physically and digitally, every aspect of the checklist was designed to meet people where they’re at in order to provide as much relief as possible in the most effective way possible.

In a recent report to the Washington Supreme Court, the COVID-19 Response Work Group said:

Our goal was to create an easy-to-navigate form that would help people identify problems where they could benefit from the assistance of a lawyer, and could be utilized by members of our community who don’t have ready access to technology.

The checklist was created through a combination of volunteer effort, as well as funding through the Legal Foundation of Washington to translate the material into 31 languages.

According to one of the project’s coordinators, Michelle Lucas, an ATJ Board member and attorney with the Northwest Justice Project (NJP), much of the information in the checklist was already in development prior to the pandemic. The Practice of Law Board had been working on a similar resource without a COVID-19 focus. In part due to the large scale of the project, that effort was mired in technical difficulties to create an online-only tool for the public. As it turned out, those problems could simply be avoided to create an effective COVID-19 Legal Needs Checklist.

“One of the biggest things [with the pandemic] is the switch to being entirely virtual; while accessible for most people, it shuts some people out completely … ,” Lucas explained. “It was increasing isolation for an already vulnerable segment of the population because there were just no more in-person ways to get information.”

Rather than build a highly engineered online tool, the COVID-19 Response Work Group focused instead on creating a checklist that was easy to understand and, more importantly, easy to distribute in physical spaces as well as access online.

Project organizers have coordinated with local, community-based social service providers. To date, the checklist has been distributed to several hundred organizations across the state and, from the feedback that’s come back, the response has been positive as those providers are best able to get the information directly to those who can benefit from it.

“Social service providers, who through much of this have maintained in person interactions, the idea is that the provider will say [to the client], ‘You’ve been dealing with these issues, this is something that legal aid might be able to help you,’” Lucas explained.

Most striking about the checklist are the myriad language options available and the work that went into targeting its translations. In conjunction with the NJP’s data team, the checklist was translated into 31 languages. Choosing which languages to prioritize was a highly intentional effort. Using NJP data, they were able to prioritize languages based not only on population size, but also the anticipated need for legal aid and the income level of people who speak different languages in Washington.

The checklist resources were further refined to prioritize legal problems that have become most critical during the pandemic, such as issues of housing, unemployment, and the rise in domestic violence and other family law matters.

“The purpose is to make sure that people know that there’s help out there and to remind folks that just because they don’t think that something is a legal problem doesn’t mean that there isn’t a solution and that just because people think that lawyers are too expensive, there might be help available …,” Lucas said. “We want people to know what their rights are and we want something that can be helpful to easily communicate that to people.”