Standards for the Provision of Civil Legal Aid

Standard 4.1 on Provider's Intake System

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Standard

A provider should design and operate an intake system that treats all persons seeking assistance with respect, accurately identifies their legal needs and promptly determines the assistance to be offered.

Commentary

General considerations

The first contact a person seeking services has with a provider is likely to be through its intake system. It is important that the system foster confidence - among those whom the provider agrees to help as well as those it turns away - that the organization is professional and capable and that it is considerate of persons seeking and utilizing its services. The logistical challenges associated with intake systems can be significant. They typically process large numbers of applicants and need to identify accurately the nature of each applicant's legal problem and make a prompt decision regarding who will be helped and the type of assistance that will be offered. A provider needs to design its intake system to accomplish these tasks in a way that does not inadvertently convey a lack of respect for applicants' time or sensitivities.

Persons seeking assistance from a provider will be offered different levels of assistance. Some applicants will be accepted as clients and offered assistance that may range from full representation to representation limited to advice or brief service. Others will not be accepted as clients, but will be given legal information about their problem. Still others will be given assistance to represent themselves through pro se clinics and other methods that teach self help. A number will be denied any form of assistance because they are ineligible or seek help in an area that the provider does not handle. Regardless of the service they ultimately receive, all persons seeking services need to be treated respectfully and professionally.

For those who will be accepted as clients, the initial experience with the provider may well set the tone for the subsequent representation. Because effective legal representation calls for a relationship of mutual trust and candor between the client and the practitioner, it is particularly important that the client's experience in intake inspires confidence in the provider and the practitioner.

Operation of intake systems

There is a range of ways that persons may initially contact the provider. Some will walk into the provider's offices or another intake site. For others, initial contact may be by telephone or on-line through the internet. Some forms of intake may involve submission of an application on-line in which there is no initial personal contact. In some cases, all of the assistance provided may be offered on-line and without any personal interaction. All aspects of a provider's intake system should be respectful of applicants' time and resources and should facilitate prompt decision-making regarding the applicants' legal needs and what the provider commits to do on their behalf.

Applicants should be interviewed promptly to determine eligibility and to identify the nature of their legal problem. Applicants should not be subjected to unnecessarily repetitive intake interviews. Telephonic intake and advice systems should avoid long waits on hold and long delays for call backs. The provider should be sensitive to the perceptions of persons using its services and should strive for a professional atmosphere in its offices. Intake procedures should assure the confidentiality of the information that is offered in support of the application.

Different types of intake process - telephonic, walk-in, or on-line - will impact differently on different persons in need of help. For many isolated persons, telephone intake may be the only viable option to seek help. For others, face to face contact may be very important, and for some cultures may be essential. Others may work hours that make any contact during normal business hours extremely difficult. A provider should strive, therefore, to offer multiple avenues for persons to seek assistance, or should actively participate in a delivery system that provides such opportunities.

Training. Personnel who are involved in intake should receive training to support their effective interaction with applicants and to assure the efficient operation of the system. Personnel should be trained in how the intake system operates and in the appropriate use of technology that is integral to the intake process. Training should reinforce the importance of all personnel treating applicants with dignity and respect. Interviews should be conducted by personnel who have been trained in effective interviewing.

Overcoming impediments to effective communication with applicants

The provider should be sensitive to cultural, linguistic and personal issues that may impede effective interaction with persons seeking its assistance. Many applicants may be anxious about contacting a legal aid provider, may be intimidated by attorneys and other legal professionals and may misunderstand what constitutes a legal problem or what remedies are available through the legal system. The provider's intake processes should be capable of responding effectively to the diverse communities its serves and of overcoming differences in culture. Intake should also have appropriate language capacity for persons with limited English proficiency. The intake system should be designed to be open and responsive to persons with physical impairments that impede access or hinder communication.

The provider should also be attentive to the many different personal circumstances that low income persons face that can impede communication. Persons who are homeless, for example, confront a number of obstacles, including the lack of a telephone, lack of a permanent address and ongoing disruption of their lives. A person with a diminished capacity because of mental or emotional impairments may call for specially trained staff to obtain the necessary facts to determine eligibility and conduct an initial analysis of the individual's legal problem. Persons who are institutionalized may require specific outreach efforts to make initial contact possible.

Identification of applicants' legal needs and
prompt determination of the assistance to be offered

Intake procedures should be designed to act quickly on applications for service. The process should gather pertinent facts regarding the applicant's legal problem so that the provider can make a prompt decision regarding whether to accept the matter for representation or another form of assistance. Applicants for service should not be subjected to a lengthy wait to find out if the provider will assist them. The provider should communicate clearly with each applicant regarding what services, if any, it will offer. If the provider offers assistance short of legal representation, it should clearly inform the individual that it is not entering into an attorney-client relationship.

Denials of service

The provider should strive to preserve good will among those who are denied service. Reasons for rejecting a case should be explained clearly and promptly, and applicants who desire a review of the decision should be given immediate assistance to pursue their grievance. The provider should refer rejected applicants to other sources of assistance, if available. Such referrals should be made as quickly as possible to allow rejected applicants to seek other assistance if necessary to protect their rights.