CHICAGO — A virtual legal assistant can help people struggling with finances get relief during the coronavirus pandemic.
The artificial-intelligence-powered tool, called COVID HELP, was developed to provide accurate legal information and connect people with local legal aid programs and other resources. It can help with a range of issues, including personal debt, bankruptcy, bills, unemployment, estates, wills and guardianship.
The most common issues for people using the platform are housing problems, like if they’re facing eviction or foreclosure, said Conor Malloy, an attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing, which helped build COVID HELP.
People seeking assistance can go to covidhelpillinois.org to talk with the bot. There, users enter their ZIP code so COVID HELP can provide legal guidance specific to the laws of a person’s municipality and give referrals to local legal aid organizations.
COVID HELP asks users a series of questions about their issue. Then, it connects them to legal information and articles that can help them find a solution.
“It’s not going to be a super-duper deep dive, but it’s to be able to start understanding the situation, understanding the laws that may affect you and how to probably get out of the fix that you’re in … to stabilize your situation,” Malloy said.
For a resident who is struggling to pay utility bills, COVID HELP would inform them of what their rights are and what types of actions they can take to make sure their situation doesn’t worsen. It would also connect the person to local programs for assistance paying those bills and refer them to a nearby legal aid clinic if they need additional help, Malloy said.
About half of people who have used COVID HELP have been referred to free legal aid attorneys specializing in that person’s issue, Malloy said.
The legal groups developed the tool so Illinoisans would have a single place to go to get the most useful information for their problems. The legal landscape is confusing and constantly shifting as statewide policies on evictions and limits on debt collection change frequently, Malloy said.
COVID HELP builds off of other artificial intelligence web bots developed by the attorney collaborations: Rentervention, a bot designed to help tenants resolve issues with landlords, and Benny, a virtual assistant for those struggling to access unemployment benefits.
For issues related to landlord disputes, evictions, and unemployment, COVID HELP hands users off to the other bots, which can create legal letters and refer them to pro bono attorneys through a virtual legal clinic.
Pascal Sabino is a Report for America corps member covering Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park for Block Club Chicago.
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