In order to minimize person-to-person contact, Fort Stewart and Hunter Army Airfield Soldier and Family Legal Services has transformed its traditional front desk to one that is virtual. They have also transferred notary services for such documents as powers of attorney and wills to brigade and battalion-level staff judge advocate sections of the 3rd Infantry Division.
Rather than coming to a building and waiting for legal assistance, clients are asked to send an email to Soldier and Family Legal Services describing their legal needs. The email address can be found at the Soldier and Family Legal Services Facebook page, ‘Fort Stewart/HAAF OSJA - Client Services’. Paralegals monitor the electronic inbox and screen each email to determine how to best provide legal services to eligible individuals.
“If the paralegals can resolve the issue, they will,” said Capt. William Carpenter, chief of Soldier and Family Legal Services. “But if it requires an appointment with an attorney, they'll go ahead and schedule a telephonic appointment. It's been very effective; we've been able to respond to inquiries within usually one business day, sometimes even sooner.”
Carpenter said if individuals do not have an organic legal section, Soldier and Family Legal Services can refer them to an off-post establishment that has agreed to provide free services to eligible individuals. In some emergency situations requiring a will or power of attorney, the Soldier and Family Legal Services will accommodate that client on a case-by-case basis.
“Right now, we're seeing anywhere from 10 to 30 emails a day in the inbox,” said Latisha King, Soldier and Family Legal Services senior paralegal. “People are catching on to how we're operating.”
According to King, many individuals are simply seeking general information and don’t need an appointment. Screening clients by email has prevented large numbers of people gathering together in order to seek legal assistance. It has also resulted in improved services.
“In February, we were routinely seeing between 80 to 120 people a day,” Carpenter said. “One of the benefits of having a reduced clientele is it has allowed us to provide more attention to those we do serve than we otherwise would be able to because of the massive caseload we normally deal with.”
Having brigade-level Staff Judge Advocate sections handle notary services for their Soldiers and Families is also helping to minimize person-to-person contact at Soldier and Family Legal Services.
Sgt. Tamera Moore, a paralegal from 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, is working out of 3rd Infantry Division Artillery’s Staff Judge Advocate, alongside paralegals from 63rd Expeditionary Signal Battalion, 83rd Chemical Bn., 92nd Engineer Bn., and Division Headquarters, Headquarters Bn.
“Normally, notary services are handled at Soldier and Family Legal Services,” Moore said. “But because of COVID-19, right now brigades are tackling those services as much as they can.”
Currently, it is undetermined when the Soldier and Family Legal Services will open to the public at their new space at Building 620, at 944 William H. Wilson Avenue, but, according to Carpenter, when they do open to the public, preventive measures will be implemented to continue to reduce the spread of contagions. This will include the wearing of masks for both legal personnel and clients, sanitization of hands, sneeze shields at the front desk, and six feet of separation in waiting areas.
“If our waiting room gets full, then we’re going to ask people to fill out a little card with their contact information, and that way, when our waiting room gets filled to capacity, which I anticipate it will because of social distancing, we’re going to call them to come in to our waiting room,” Carpenter said. “We're also going to try to maintain telephonic appointments to the extent possible. We’ve found that to be pretty successful.”
King wanted to remind the greater FSGA/HAAF community that Soldier and Family Legal Services is available, not only to active duty service members, but also retirees and Family members.
“The only thing with retirees, though, is that they can’t get actual notaries and powers of attorney from us, but we still have resources that we can provide them for where to go for notary services,” King said.