Got a legal issue weighing on your mind? At non-profit website Lawspot, which went live this week, you can now ask questions about New Zealand law and qualified volunteer lawyers will answer them for free.
Founded by Kiwi entrepreneur Bowen Pan and his partner, Russell McVeagh lawyer Maya Shino, the concept builds on what community law centres around the country are currently doing.
You could say it's akin to an online branch of a community law centre. Centres have drop-in hours during which rostered lawyers can consult with anyone who walks in. Shino says Lawspot simplifies that process to remove geographical barriers or timing barriers.
She says the online service will lend itself to more general or basic queries. Meanwhile, community law centres will continue to operate their drop-in hours, but their "precious" face-to-face resources will be freed up for more efficient use of time with those who most need it.
"It makes sense for community law centres to focus on those really complicated legal matters."
On Lawspot, users submit queries for qualified lawyer volunteers to consider. Community Law Wellington and Hutt Valley supervise the answers and only approved responses will be published.
Questions will be kept anonymous, with only an email address required to sign up (which won't be displayed to even the answering lawyer). The information is then accessible online, anytime, for free.
As to what areas they can advise on, Shino says they won't take on queries from businesses or employers – it's strictly a grassroots initiative aimed at addressing an unmet need in the community.
So far questions on the site range from consumer rights to employment, family, criminal and property law issues.
Former Attorney-General and Speaker of the House Margaret Wilson is backing Lawspot as its patron, and TradeMe marketing manager James Whitaker and developer Paul Bartrum are also involved.
Pan sees this as the way of the future for social enterprises, applying the efficient execution abilities of the commercial world in the non-profit context.
There are already several Wellington lawyers on board as volunteers and Lawspot will be training more.
"A lot are in corporate firms and want to feel they are adding some social value using their legal skills. Often it's about that more human contact – if you're in a big firm you might not get so much of that," says Shino.
Another draw is the opportunity to meet other like minds. Shino says it's not always easy to connect with people outside your immediate corporate social circle and participating in Lawspot brings together lawyers with an interest in the online world. They plan to organise events, too, that will help foster these connections.
"They get to be involved in an exciting new online movement that hasn't really been tested in New Zealand but happens overseas and being one of those pioneers in that sense."
Lawyer volunteers will be protected from legal liability in the same way as they are when they sign up to give advice at a community law centre.