A Brief History of Senior Legal Hotlines

by Shoshanna Ehrlich

The Senior Legal Hotlines movement began in 1985 as partnership between AoA and the AARP Foundation, when, with a grant from the AoA, AARP launched the first statewide senior legal hotline as a pilot project to test the feasibility of increasing access to legal services for Pennsylvania residents age 60 and older by providing legal advice by telephone.

The Legal Hotline for Older Americans in Pittsburgh was based on the stand alone model – the statewide senior legal hotline was operated by an organization that was not part of a legal services program offering extended representation. The original Pennsylvania hotline tested the basic concept that has spread to more than half the states and defined the services to be provided by a legal hotline. Residents age 60 and older could call a toll-free number. Experienced attorneys with special training in elder law answered eligible callers’ legal questions, provided advice to resolve callers’ problems, counseled clients on courses of action, and provided some brief services.  If the caller needed representation, he was referred to an appropriate resource, including OAA Title IIIB legal service providers, Legal Services Corporation-funded programs, reduced-fee private attorneys, pro bono attorneys or the private bar.

The success of the Pennsylvania legal hotline in the mid-1980’s, with high numbers of clients served, high rates of client satisfaction, and extremely efficient costs per case, convinced both AARP and AoA that the model had enormous potential for providing quality legal services to large numbers of seniors at low-cost.  In order for other organizations to successfully replicate, adapt, and maintain the quality standards of the model, they would need a thorough understanding of program design, case-handling procedures, and quality control methods.  Consequently, AARP and AoA agreed to cooperate in disseminating this information through a Technical Support Project, funded through Title IV. AARP Foundation operated the technical support project through 2008. In 2009, the Center for Elder Rights Advocacy at Elder Law of Michigan was awarded the role of Legal Hotline Technical Assistance provider through the National Legal Resource Center funded by AoA.

In 1987, AARP piloted another version of the senior legal hotline. It launched a legal hotline as the advice and intake unit for AARP Legal Counsel for the Elderly’s (LCE) law office which serves the over-60 population of Washington, D.C. LCE is the District’s Title IIIB legal provider.  Through this model, clients needing only legal advice can be assisted quickly by the Hotline attorney.  Clients needing further legal representation with cases appropriate for LCE are referred to a staff attorney after analysis by the hotline attorney, thus streamlining their intake into the full-service program and relieving LCE staff attorneys of intake, advice and analysis duties on cases not appropriate for representation.

In 1989, AARP Foundation donated seed money to ProSeniors in OH, Legal Services of Greater Miami in FL, The Texas Legal Services Center, and Elder Law of Michigan to start statewide senior legal hotlines.  AARP Foundation direct funding for the operation of legal hotlines ended in 1994, with the exception of the original PA hotline which continued to receive AARP Foundation funding through 2004. The Legal Hotline for Older Floridians at LSGMI in Florida and the Legal Hotline for Older Americans in PA closed soon after the AARP funding ended. New statewide senior legal hotlines in FL and PA were established with AoA Title IV funding.

Between 1991-2006, AoA published Requests for Proposals for Statewide Senior Legal Hotlines. These grants were usually for three years and went directly to the legal service providers. The Title IV grants led to the creation of statewide senior legal hotlines in CA, CT, FL, GA, HI, IA, ID, KS, KY, MD, ME, NE, NM, PA, PR, SC, WA, and WV.  Several statewide hotlines opened with the Title IV hotline funding but closed when they were unable to get funding to continue operations. (AZ, IN, MS, NH, NY, SC, TN).

Thanks in large part to the pioneering efforts of the senior legal hotlines, in 1996 the Legal Services Corporation recommended its programs adopt a telephone intake and advice model.  In partnership with the Legal Hotlines Technical Assistance Project, the American Bar Association promulgated and adopted Rules for the Operation of a Telephone Legal Hotline in 2002.

In 2006, AoA redesigned the Title IV funding and announced the Model Approaches to Statewide Legal Assistance Cooperative Agreements Request for Proposals. The goal of Model approaches was to create integrated legal services delivery systems for seniors within the state, under the leadership of the Legal Assistance Developer, which would include low cost legal services delivery mechanisms. Low cost mechanisms included hotlines, law school clinics, pro bono assistance, and whatever other innovations the participants developed. Model Approaches funding in 2006 was first afforded only to the state unit housing the Legal Assistance Developer. The RFP was later adjusted to allow applicants to be either the state unit or the legal services provider and AoA funded additional cycles of Model Approaches in 2007, 2009, and  2010.  MA funding was used to open statewide senior legal hotlines in AL, DE, MA, NC, NV, RI, UT, and VT. The AL hotline had to close after funding ended after the MA three year cycle. MA funding has also helped hotlines established before the inception of the MA project to continue or enhance their operations. These include CT, DC, FL, KY, MD, ME, MI, ND, NE, OH, PA, and WV. Several of the MA recipient states did not use their MA funding to create or support legal hotlines. (AK, VA, LA, MO, SC) There are currently 30 statewide senior legal hotlines including Puerto Rico and D.C.  Eight of these are receiving Model Approaches funding through the 2013 awards.

In 2013, AoA bifurcated the Model Approaches program into Phase I and Phase II categories. The funding is for a three year cycle and all awardees will be on the same cycle so that no new funding for Model Approaches is contemplated at this time until the three year cycle ends.

Phase I states were those that had never received a Model Approaches award. This funding could be awarded to either the agency housing the Legal Assistance Developer or an organization proposing to operate a senior legal helpline.  Four states received the Phase I awards: WA, OR, MT, and OK. In Washington, the Northwest Justice Project, in partnership with the Legal Assistance Developer, proposed the Project. NWJ Project has operated a statewide senior legal hotline – CLEAR*Sr – since 1998. The state units housing the Legal Assistance Devloper in OR, MT, and OK were the recipients of their states’ MA awards. OR does not contemplate establishing a legal hotline. (See page for a description of plans for 2013 MA projects). Through their Legal Services Developer programs, the MT and OK have some telephone advice services in place. The MA awards will hopefully serve to integrate these services with their states’ legal providers.

Phase II awards were made to the state unit housing the Legal Assistance Developer. Competition was open to any state that had been a recipient of a previous Model Approaches award. Between $75,000 and $85,000 per year of the 2013 cycle awards have to be used to operate a senior legal helpline. Seven established hotlines will be able to resume, continue, or expand operations with these funds: CA, DC, IA, ID, ME, MI, NE.

The Model Approaches project has certainly been successful in utilizing the leadership of the Legal Assistance Developer to promote the integration of states’ legal services and aging network but the dilemma of securing ongoing funding for the statewide senior legal hotlines remains.

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