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Ohio Legal Help provides access to justice

Taylor Azi Zachary

South Korean folklore says for one born with the name Choe, the grass will not grow beneath their feet. They are simply that stubborn. 

Susan Choe chooses to interpret her birthright as a prophecy of grit and determination. As the executive director of Ohio Legal Help, a website that provides free legal aid to Ohio residents, Choe manifests the principles in her name through the practice of her leadership. 

“Since we have been in operation, we have connected over 86,000 Ohioans to local resources,” Choe says. “We see 50,000 unique visits a month, and we project half a million visits in our second year.”

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Through what is known as the “100% Access to Justice Movement,” the decision to design a 24/7 mobile model derives from a commitment to increasing equity in the legal system. Ohio Legal Help focuses its resources on the immediate areas users need most. “To create more equities in the system, the tool that we provide must be equitable and useful to those that have the least. Their feedback is critical,” Choe says.

Ohio Legal Help was founded in 2018 after the Supreme Court of Ohio convened a 12-member task force on access to justice. A primary objective of the task force was to develop recommendations for closing Ohio’s civil justice gap. Former Ohio Supreme Court Justice Yvette McGee Brown chaired the task force. 

“Usually, the focus on unmet legal needs is on the criminal justice system,” McGee Brown says. “Many people who have civil justice needs fall through the cracks because legal aid can only manage a certain percentage of cases, and these litigants do not make enough money to hire a lawyer. A lot of them will go online and get legal forms, then show up in court. But judges and their bailiffs end up spending a lot of time helping pro se litigants and walking people through something that should be very simple. That really is the impetus (for the task force).” 

Strength in Justice, a 2010 report prepared by the Ohio Legal Assistance Foundation, indicates historically, Ohio led national efforts in legal aid. In 1905, Cleveland birthed Ohio’s first legal aid society. Three years later, a Cincinnati office opened. In 1908, Cincinnati was one of seven national cities providing legal aid services. Throughout the 20th century, regional legal aid networks established a tangible method for resolving civil justice needs. 

The report further indicates statewide economic benefits of legal aid activities. In 2010, legal aid activities produced $15.6 million in total tax revenue, $4.9 million in earnings impact, and created or sustained over 700 jobs. Additionally, legal aid activities operated with a total budget of $49.1 million. This $49.1 million generated an additional $56.8 million in economic output statewide. After adjusting these figures relative to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Regional Input-Output Modeling System, the sum of total impact for legal aid activities resulted in $106 million. This was a 115 percent return for each dollar invested. 

Launched in the fall of 2019, none of Ohio Legal Help’s founders foresaw Covid-19, of course. Kim Shumate, president of the board of the Ohio Access to Justice Foundation, a key funder and partner for Ohio Legal Help, spoke on the serendipity of the organization’s launch. 

“Getting Ohio Legal Help up and running was a key goal in our plan,” she says. “As a board, we were just incredibly focused on accomplishing the goals set out in that plan. None of us could have ever predicted that the need for it would be so immediate and so timely. But how fortunate for Ohio and the citizens of Ohio who need that help.” 

The vision of 100 percent access to justice is a goal none expect to experience in their lifetime. That does not deter stakeholders from pursuing it, however. 

“All roads lead to equity,” says Ukeme Awakessien Jeter, in-house counsel at Nationwide and an Ohio Legal Help board member. 

“We believe it to the core,” says Choe. “I do not know when we will see it, but we will work on it every day until it is a reality.”

Taylor Azi Zachary is a freelance writer.

Ohio Legal Help

88 E. Broad St., Suite 720 Columbus 43215

ohiolegalhelp.org

Mission: To help all Ohioans access the civil justice system.

Executive director: Susan Choe

Employees: 4

Budget: $700,000 (2020)

Susan Choe, executive director of Ohio Legal Help