As foreclosure rates continue to rise, pro bono and legal aid programs around the country are developing innovative programs to help respond to those in need, using technology to make it easier to connect attorneys with cases and to provide them with the necessary resources, including interactive templates for legal documents.
Foreclosure filings nationwide rose 5% from September 2008 to October 2008, according to RealtyTrac, publisher of the country’s largest foreclosure database. This represents a year-over-year increase of 25%. Put another way, one in every 452 U.S. housing units received a foreclosure filing in October.
California had the highest number of foreclosure filings of any state in October - nearly 57,000. To help the state’s consumers, the State Bar of California and Public Interest Clearinghouse used the Pro Bono Net platform to create a specialized site, ForeclosureInfoCA.org, which is accessible from LawhelpCalifornia.org and offers information on avoiding foreclosure, identifying predatory lenders, finding a manageable mortgage and related topics. Attorneys in California seeking foreclosure-related pro bono work can go to the state’s Pro Bono Net site, CaliforniaProBono.org, and use the search function to find programs that focus on foreclosure prevention.
In Minnesota, a new practice area on the statewide website, ProJusticeMN.org, helps steer attorneys to foreclosure cases. Attorneys who join the real estate practice area have access to a database of available cases as well as a resource library featuring sample court documents (jury instructions, pleadings, etc.); case summaries prepared specifically for the site; major statutes; and practice aids such as reports, research and explanations of relevant concepts like mortgage securitization and equity stripping.
“The site is highly effective as a way to prevent duplication of effort and to ensure that attorneys have all the necessary resources to take on a foreclosure case,” said Darielle Dannen, Housing Law Resource Attorney at Minnesota’s Volunteer Lawyers Network. Student volunteers spent a lot of time gathering and organizing relevant research so that attorneys, particularly those unfamiliar with real estate law, can quickly get up to speed on the issues.
In Pennsylvania, online document assembly is being used to help pro bono and legal aid attorneys working on foreclosure cases. Three interactive forms have been developed, according to Sheila Fisher, a Staff Attorney at North Penn Legal Services who worked on the project with attorneys at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia: answer and new matter, preliminary objections to a complaint, and petition to open or strike a default judgment.
“People are amazed at how quickly they can do forms” using the interactive templates, Sheila said. In addition to making the process more efficient, “the way the templates are built reminds the advocates of all the different aspects to a pleading that they should take into consideration,” she said. “It takes the expert information that we got from specialists and presents it to even a novice advocate.” She is now working with colleagues in the legal services community to adapt the forms to another area that is on the rise, credit card collection.
In New York, several efforts by nonprofit legal service organizations to provide foreclosure assistance are now taking shape, involving both the public sector and volunteers from the private bar. Pro Bono Net has been asked by Legal Services NYC, The City Bar Justice Center’s Lawyers Foreclosure Intervention Network and The Legal Aid Society to develop a foreclosure practice area that will serve as a central networking hub. The site will unite individual projects that have received funding from a variety of sources. The Lawyers Foreclosure Intervention Network was developed by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and the New York City Bar Association. The Center for New York City Neighborhoods, a city-funded initiative, has provided grants to Legal Services NYC for foreclosure prevention.