COVID-19 relief funds go to free legal help for Iowans

The UI helped launch the online law library after receiving over $600,000 in American Rescue Plan Act funding.


Vincenzo Mazza

The Boyd Law Building is seen in Iowa City on Sunday Nov. 6, 2022.

Emily Nyberg, News Reporter

The University of Iowa helped launch a website with the State Library of Iowa to provide information about the types of law free of charge. The website, called the People’s Law Library of Iowa, was paid for through $600,000 of American Rescue Plan Act funds.

Carissa Vogel, UI Law Library director and professor, created the website with State Library of Iowa librarian Michael Scott. They took inspiration from the People Law Library Maryland, which was created in the 1990s and is considered the gold standard in online legal resources, Vogel said.

“I think a lot of the perception about the law is that it’s very hard to understand because it’s very specialized. It can be really, really confusing and alienating,” she said. “We want to, at that foundational level, help people along. This is not supposed to be a substitute for having an attorney. This is information to help people to get to the next step.”

The website includes information on three main topics: consumer law, family law, and landlord/tenant law. Vogel said she and Scott plan to cover over 15 areas of law over the next five years.

The website features video explanations of how to use the site and includes language translations like Google Translate.

It also has a quick escape feature, which will open a different tab on the user’s device.

Vogel said the feature was designed for people in abusive relationships who may be looking for legal advice and need to leave the site quickly.

After one month of the site being live, the UI Law Library reported an increase in people asking for assistance based on the legal information they got from the website, Vogel said.

She added they are waiting for the three-month mark to release any official data on site interaction and community feedback so they can collect more data.

UI Student Legal Services Attorney and Director Amanda Elkins said access to free legal services will be a resource for students. The website will give them a place to direct non-students who call for help.

“The legal system can be difficult to navigate, especially for students, and oftentimes, the other party in a case — like a landlord — has financial and legal resources, and that’s an imbalance, regardless of the facts of the case,” she said.

Elkins said access to free legal services will help people feel more at ease during their legal process.

“Not having access to services causes stress, affects our mental health, [and] affects our employment,” she said. “These legal issues distract from other important things in people’s lives like family, relationships, and education.”

Eric Goers, City of Iowa City attorney and member of the Iowa Bar Association Legal Access Committee, said legal access is an overarching goal of the legal system, but that goal is not always met.

“A long-standing goal in the legal profession is that everyone has access to legal representation and the system works more smoothly,” he said. “We strive to ensure that everyone has that access, and that is not limited to only those who have the means to hire private counsel. The legal system, unfortunately, is not always easy to navigate.”

Goers said the State Bar Association’s legal access committee is working alongside the People’s Law Library of Iowa to make the law accessible to the public.

“The ramifications of making mistakes or not following proper procedure can be profound,” he said. “Our committee is the legal access committee. It has already set about a subcommittee to work with the State Bar Association to try to ensure the success of that project.”