Online lawyers' advice hits the spot

BRIGHT IDEA: Maya Shino says the online service is aimed at overcoming a lot of the duplication in lawyers’ work.
BRIGHT IDEA: Maya Shino says the online service is aimed at overcoming a lot of the duplication in lawyers’ work.

A non-profit legal advice website founded by Wellington solicitor Maya Shino with the support of former attorney-general Margaret Wilson will soon be rolled out nationally.

The online source allows members of the public free access to lawyers to submit questions.

About 50 lawyers from firms in the Wellington region are volunteering to answer questions that are submitted from the public. The questions are screened by volunteer law students or recent graduates who remove any identifying information, making sure questions are anonymous to the lawyers responding.

Shino, 24, came up with the concept for the online service after finding the regular free face-to-face legal service sessions she volunteered to provide at a Wellington community group had unreliable attendance levels and that common questions kept coming up.

"A lot of people came in with the same kind of questions about consumer, employment and tenancy law issues, so I felt there was a lot of duplication in the work lawyers were doing because they talked to someone for an hour, then had to repeat the process the next week.

"This also provides a way for lawyers to volunteer if they need flexibility and can't leave the office, which prevents them from giving back," Shino said.

"Law centres are great at what they do but our website is especially exciting for people in rural areas that can't get in to a law centre."

The other advantage of putting things online was that there was a searchable database of previous questions so that people could look for similar questions and see how the answer applied to their own situation.

Disputes people have sought advice on so far include concerns in dealing with neighbours, whether verbal employment agreements are legally binding, and people wondering when they can withdraw KiwiSaver funds and wanting to know what legally happens to pets when a couple separates.

Free legal advice services are not new. Citizens Advice Bureau offers assistance and the Community Law website publishes online copies of laws so people can check what their rights are.

However, LawSpot aims to be highly accessible and easily understood by people. There are plans to offer the service in Pacific, Maori, Chinese and other languages as new immigrants or people who have English as a second language are often particularly vulnerable to not understanding New Zealand law.

"We don't see LawSpot as direct competition, we are complementing what they are doing. We will never be a substitute for face-to-face advice but what we're trying to do is be the initial point of contact," Shino said.

"It's actually just freeing up law centre resources to do what they do best, which is face-to-face complex legal advice."

Palmerston North-raised Shino, who is part Japanese, started the project with former Treat Me head Bowen Pan. LawSpot was recently awarded $10,000 in development funding at the 2012 AMP Do Your Thing Scholarships to help it roll out nationally by April.

The firm where she works during the week, Russell McVeagh, has donated $20,000 of time to answering the questions.

The site was developed free by friends with web skills and sponsorship is now being sought from businesses for further funding.

"We've just been promoting LawSpot in Wellington but we have had requests from lawyers from Auckland and the South Island asking how they can get involved, so we are keen to expand it soon, which ties into our search for more corporate sponsorship to handle traffic on the website to do the national rollout properly."

Translating it into other languages would probably be phase two after "getting it right in English first", Shino said.