Coordinating a national legal help platform for renters during COVID-19
This piece was originally published on our Medium publication Legal Design and Innovation.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US earlier this year, there has been a legal crisis brewing alongside the public health one. The virus and the economic collapse have prompted an escalation of civil justice issues — with more people seeking help for filing for unemployment benefits, getting domestic violence protection, and protecting themselves against possible eviction or utility shutoffs.
But when people search for legal help, what can they actually find online?
Each state does have a handful of authoritative, public interest websites that can connect people to legal guides, legal aid groups, and key info about these justice problems. The Legal Services Corporation (the Congressionally-funded non-profit that is the US’s main legal aid funder) supports a national network of legal help portals, that ensures each state has a central site for free legal help and access to local legal aid groups. Most state courts have pages for the public to get instructions, forms, and updates about legal help.
The problem is, when people search on Google and other search engines, they most often don’t end up finding these public interest, authoritative sites — or they find ones that don’t actually apply to them.
Search engines’ legal help breakdowns
Most civil justice problems (“can I get a restraining order?”, “how do I get unemployment benefits?”, or “can I be evicted if I don’t pay my rent during coronavirus?”) are state-specific. Jurisdiction matters a lot — with different states having different rules, rights, and processes for people with these problems.
Many people don’t realize the importance of jurisdiction when they’re searching online for help, and neither do most search engines. For example, when I run searches from Sunnyvale, California about my rights as a renter during COVID, I get results that appear trustworthy on their face (they are from non-profits and news sites), but they are actually wrong for me. Or, they are not as good as they could be.
There are 2 major breakdowns in legal help searches, that can lead to misinformation for renters during the emergency:
- Results that answer the person’s questions — but with information from the wrong jurisdiction. Like when I search about being evicted during COVID, I’m direct to high-quality websites from incorrect jurisdictions: legal help portals from Washington, Connecticut, Texas, and even San Francisco (which is a close-by neighbor of Sunnyvale, but actually has different local eviction protections than my city does). These portals have well-written, correctly-sourced content that is completely incorrect for me as a renter in a city in California.
- Results that give abstracted national summaries, like with brief journalistic articles that talk about general trends in how different states are responding to the legal crisis, but do not actually answer my questions with actionable details for me to understand my protections. These articles like those from Marketplace, cNet, or the Daily Beast, are not incorrect, they are just too high-level to provide meaningful legal help that a person can act on. As a renter worried about my rights, these news articles let me know that I might have some protections, but that it’s up to me to hunt down the details of what those might be or what I have to do to make use of them.
Legal misinformation online has different dynamics than more politicized areas of misinformation. It’s not so much about malicious or profit-seeking actors spreading incorrect information. (At least when it comes to housing/eviction searches; immigration law seems to be a different matter, where anecdotally there appear to be more fraudulent legal websites). Rather, it’s about search engines that answer people’s questions with detailed information from the wrong jurisdiction, or with popular but vague news articles.
The potential for harm is still there despite the lack of bad actors. People on the brink of a legal crisis may be relying on incorrect information to make key decisions (like about whether to pay rent or not). They may follow the wrong legal procedure (like how to formally give notice to their landlord about COVID hardships, or how many days they have to respond to an eviction lawsuit summons). Or they may get burnt out trying to hunt down the help information they really want but can’t easily find, and stop seeking out assistance altogether.
Building a platform to address the legal help search breakdowns
At the Stanford Legal Design Lab over the past two years, we’ve taken this topic — of how to make the Internet a better place to get people correct, local, public interest legal help — as one of our primary areas of work. In this, we’ve had the support of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ team on Civil Legal System Modernization and the LSC’s Technology Initiative Grant program, which have also prioritized the improvement of legal online search, natural language processing, website portals, and other digital resources.
In addition to our Better Legal Internet area of work, our Lab team has also been working on a second primary theme, of how to address the eviction crisis in the US through innovative services, tech, and policymaking.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, these two themes converged. As the pandemic put more US renters at risk of eviction, it has also led to an explosion of new policymaking and services to address the crisis. Congress, HUD, state governments, county leaders, and city councils have been active in creating new temporary laws and policies to protect renters who might not be able to pay their rent or utility bills during the emergency period.
Many of these policies are called similar things: eviction moratoriums, rent freezes, utility shutoff moratoriums, or the like. But despite common names, the actual policies, rights, and processes vary widely among jurisdictions.
Some states have no official protections at all. Others have laws that expired quickly and briefly stopped law enforcement from removing people from their homes with an eviction order. Or they have very detailed steps renters must take to be protected — with strict deadlines and requirements on how to notify their landlord about late rent payments, and what qualifies as a valid reason. Other states have broad, robust protections that give people months to pay their back-rent, that stop landlords from filing an eviction lawsuit for several months, and that require landlords to offer reasonable payment plans to renters. (Check out these variations at the Princeton-Columbia collaboration, on Eviction/COVID scorecards for each state).
So, if you are a renter — how do you know what protections you actually have? And what steps you must take to make use of these protections?
Connecting people to the right emergency legal help info
Our Lab, with support from The Pew Charitable Trusts, decided to create a website that aims to tackle this challenge. Local state and city websites were posting help pages for renters during COVID-19, but the big challenge for the Internet, is how to get people to this correct local information?
Our approach was to coordinate a central national platform, Legal Help FAQs, that could direct people to the key information for renters in their jurisdiction and then hand them off to local public interest groups for fuller services and information. The key thing is the jurisdiction: to design a site that necessarily channels people to the right jurisdiction, and constantly reinforces that the site’s information is only correct for people in a certain place.
That’s why we designed a central national site that would make clear to visitors that their rights and services depended entirely on their location — and to bring them right to their state’s key information (rather than leaving them to search for it on their own).
Our team spent the past three months building out the Legal Help FAQs platform from scratch, with our initial version focused on key questions for renters about eviction, rent, utilities, court hearings, and repairs during the pandemic. We designed the site specifically for search engine optimization — with an FAQ style that has concise, detailed summaries that could be featured on a search results page as a snippet or call-out. We used Schema.org markup to communicate to search engines that we had FAQ answers on housing issues for COVID-19.
And, we invested in relationships with local legal help experts from around the country. We reached out to networks of legal aid lawyers, housing advocates, and technologists to find at least one volunteer who could help us in each state. Our team of law students from Stanford and Yale drafted initial FAQs by using the wonderful policy tracker from Prof. Emily Benfer’s team at Columbia and Penn Law Schools, collecting help FAQs from each state’s law help portal, and diving into governor’s executive orders and court orders. Our tech lead developed templates that let the law students start from a basic format, that they could edit and refine for the local rules. Then we went through extensive content reviews with our local volunteer experts to get all the details interpreted, corrected, and explained in plain language.
This platform turned out to be a huge — but not insurmountable — effort. The technology part was much easier than the legal content challenge. Even if we could build the website’s infrastructure in the matter of a few weeks, the challenge has really been in getting 50 states’ correct and actionable answers written and updated. The laws and services are changing quickly in each state, especially over the past month as protections have expired in some states and other states have renewed or expanded their protections.
Our volunteer network has been invaluable in keeping us informed on local changes, and interpreting the web of governor, judicial, and legislative orders that are being issued, extended, and (in some cases) retracted. We also have the other policy trackers’ teams to support our ongoing updates, as well as Google News alerts, and team members that will be updating the FAQs weekly during the emergency period.
We’ve also invested in building out a database of legal help websites, emergency rental funds, legal aid groups, and other resources by jurisdiction. This lets us connect visitors to their state, local, and nationwide public interest resources to call, text, or visit online. Gathering all of these sites, hotlines, and tools together has been a massive effort — but has gotten easier once we connected with our local volunteers, who have much of this information collected already in their organizations, and now can share it with a wider audience on a coordinated platform.
Our Launch and beyond
Now that we have 50-states’ worth of FAQs all written, updated, and vetted by our local experts, we are very happy to debut the Legal Help FAQs platform. We will be updating the information every week, if not more often, to keep it current with new orders and changes to the emergency laws. We will also be adding in new rental assistance programs and free legal help resources, as more jurisdictions roll out new initiatives.
We’ll be watching to see how our FAQs perform on search results, and how we can use more Schema.org markup, SEO strategies, and other strategies to get more people connected with authoritative, jurisdiction-correct answers to their questions.
If the FAQ platform proves to be useful to visitors, and our content strategy proves to be sustainable, the next step will be to add more resources to address the changing legal crisis that may develop over the coming months.
A national resource for eviction defense guides
As many experts predict an avalanche of eviction filings over the summer — likely accelerating in August — there will likely be a huge need of guides on eviction defense, navigating court process, and raising COVID-related legal defenses in courts. Our next step may be to add in another set of FAQs for each state, with step-by-step guides on how an eviction case proceeds through the court, key timelines to follow, forms and tools to use to defend yourself, and connections to local legal help to give brief advice or full representation to renters.
Beyond the website approach: social media bots
Another possible next step is to get the FAQ content out of just the website presentation, and into other places where people are seeking out help for their legal problems. For example, what if we could spot when people are on a sub-Reddit for their local city, and they’re asking about how they should respond if their landlord has given them a notice that they’re going to be sued for eviction? We could use that forum question to connect people with the correct information about their legal protections, next steps, and local service groups that could help them.
Thanks to other projects coming out of law school labs and Pew- and LSC-supported initiatives, like the Natural Language Processing-powered legal issue spotter Spot and the Learned Hands machine learning game, there are rapidly improving tools to help identify people’s possible legal issues from posts they share online, like on Reddit, Twitter, or other social media.
These issue-spotting tools, combined with high-quality legal FAQ content and service referrals, can provide the infrastructure for a new social media legal help bot strategy. Bots could be spotting legal issues and jurisdiction, sending people FAQ answers and connections to service groups, and channeling people away from misinformation and toward quality legal help.
If you are interested in helping out with our Legal Help FAQs project as a volunteer or team member, please be in touch! We also are welcoming feedback, edits, and suggestions on how to make this very new platform more usable, and how to get more people connected with its content.
Share the site widely, we appreciate your help in getting this out to as many renters across the country as we can!