FindLaw's Top 10 Legal Predictions for 2009

As 2008 becomes 2009, the nation finds itself in the midst of large scale changes with perhaps larger changes on the horizon. Based on current trends and observation of user behavior, FindLaw, the most visited legal information site, predicts that these top issues will be among the most popular consumer legal topics in the New Year.

Urban Living Employment & Employee Rights
Debt & Collection Green Law
The Internet, Social Media and Personal Identity Military Rights
Driving and Gadgets Child Custody, Support, Alimony
Marriage & Domestic Partnership Small Business


Urban Living

Legal issues associated with urban living are nothing new, but while the mortgage and financial crisis has put the brakes on suburban home purchases, our cities' populations continue to grow. More people living close to each other means a rise in age old urban legal problems such as noise and air pollution, lack of open space, disputes between neighbors, crime, blight and newer dilemmas such as curfews to keep teens off the street at night.

While these diverse issues crop up differently in cities coast-to-coast, they share the need for local governments to step in and provide solutions. As cash-strapped municipalities try to do more with less, citizens will watch with hope that their governments can not only maintain exiting initiatives, but also take action to improve the quality of urban life.

Employment & Employee Rights

The economic downturn has hit workers at all levels and in virtually all sectors of our economy. As people lose all or part of their jobs, they will increasingly look to the internet for information about their rights and protections as employees. Employers looking for any dollar they can cut from expenses will seek ways to trim labor costs without running afoul of employment laws.

Workers already and will increasingly ask basic but critical employment law questions such as: is it legal to fire me when I did nothing wrong? how much can my employer cut my hours? can my employer reduce my benefits? and when does my employer have to give me my last paycheck?

Many with jobs that once seemed secure may be forced to learn the intricacies of unemployment insurance in their state. In addition to a rise in state court employment litigation, more job losses will mean more complaints filed with state Workforce Commissions when fired workers feel their termination was wrongful.

Debt & Collection

Unfortunately, folks already feeling the pinch of tight job markets will also feel greater pressure from debt and debt collectors. On the other end, businesses and lenders finding it tougher to collect will look for any way to get paid.

Legal issues vital to consumers will include protection from debt collectors and debt reduction strategies such as mortgage adjustment and bankruptcy. Though recent years have given increased legal protections to credit card companies, consumers may clamor for consumer protections -- along the lines of recently passed legislation to make illegal the practice of raising cardholders' interest rates and applying the increased interest to purchases made in the past. In regards to the most talked about debt of all -- people's mortgages -- consumers will keep a watchful eye out for promised foreclosure relief.

Small businesses will also search for options in dealing with debt from both ends of the stick. Faced with a lack of credit and existing debt, businesses will hunger for debt relief options including bankruptcy. Trying to survive in tough economic circumstances will force more small businesses to explore debt collection options as the flow of payments slows from their customers and trading partners.

Green Law

It seems like only yesterday that a gallon of gas cost almost five dollars. Though a global financial crisis (causing far lower demand for oil) has temporarily given reprieve at the pump, it will not stave off big picture environmental problems threatening our planet. The recent temporary bailout of General Motors and Chrysler drove home to Americans that our old way of getting around may well drive us into a dead end. The need to stay economically viable, as well as stave off environmental disaster, has consumers, industry and lawmakers thinking "green."

President-Elect Obama has proposed a two birds with one stone approach in which large scale public works projects combat both skyrocketing unemployment and looming environmental threats. Creating "green collar" jobs, the argument goes, would put people to work and quicken our technological movement away from fossil fuels.

Whether or not we see a Roosevelt-like public works project in green technology, we will likely see large shifts in how our federal government uses its power to implement green change. From rules set or modified by a new Environmental Protection Agency, to the approach a new Department of Agriculture decides to take on ethanol, how the federal government uses its powers will set the tone for how America attempts to go green. Governments at the state and local level will also play key roles in implementing programs and laws to help us go green.

Americans will look for all levels of government to help take us green through tools including business and consumer tax incentives for using alternative energy, along with subsidies and direct government projects to promote green technological development.

The Internet, Social Media and Personal Identity

To many, it can seem as if what's online changes in the blink of an eye. Alone at a keyboard, it's as if a layer of anonymity will make what happens in cyberspace stay in cyberspace. Not true. Just ask the woman recently convicted of misdemeanor charges for her misrepresentation on MySpace which played a role in a teenage girl's suicide. Decisions such as this will have long-ranging implications on how people chose to and are allowed to represent themselves online.

Of course with more action online, more opportunities present themselves to fraudsters and identity thieves. As technology changes, so must the laws and regulations through which we try to keep a handle on such crimes. No doubt that 2009 will see continued activity on this front.

Beyond crimes which can happen online, even people without malicious intention will increasingly find slender barriers between what they do online and their life offline. With more people engaging in social media, or at least becoming familiar with it, through your MySpace or Facebook page you can not only show parts of yourself to friends old and new, but also potentially to your boss, university officials, law enforcement... basically everyone. Even if companies such as Facebook allow users some increased control over the data they put online, once out, digital cats are often hard to put back in the bag.

While the information one chooses to put online naturally affects what can be considered private about that person, the explosion of useful information online has enormous privacy implications even for someone who has never clicked a mouse. Individuals, and even entire towns (such as the Minnesota town wanting off of Google Maps), will increasingly confront the question of how to retain privacy in an increasngly connected world.

Military Rights

Troops coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan face not only re-entry after living in a war zone, but also the economic woes plaguing all of us. In addition to questions about family law, employment and healthcare that civilians confront, returning military personnel naturally will continue to look into the benefits they are entitled to in return for their service -- whether it be adequate healthcare for injuries inflicted in the course of duty, re-employment rights for those who serve, or job training to help get re-established. With the economic downturn, more will need to learn about bankruptcy for military members.

In 2008 a new G.I. Bill became law, increasing educational benefits afforded our troops after service. With thousands of troops potentially coming home in 2009, information about accessing old and new benefits will prove vital.

Driving and Gadgets

We can now talk, text, look at maps, surf the web, and do countless other things with devices that fit nicely in our pockets. But should we do these things while behind the wheel? This has already proven a hotspot. With half of young drivers admitting to texting while driving, despite a 400% increase in time spent with people's eyes off the road as warned by the AMA, driving while distracted has reached epidemic proportions.

Currently, at least seven states have banned driving while talking without a hand-free device and/or driving while texting. More states capture these behaviors in general laws against driving while distracted. With many states yet to address the problem directly, and people unable to resist the urge to talk and text while pulling a u-turn in traffic, look for action on this front anywhere people use cars and cell phones.

Child Custody, Support, Alimony

Tough economic times can add heat to issues that already run hot. Just as 2008 saw an increased need for information on family law issues such as custody, child-support and alimony, 2009 looks to continue the trend. Changed economic circumstances can serve as a reason to alter existing alimony and child-support arrangements, and the coming year promises many changes in economic circumstances. The result will be even more people needing to understand what to do when they aren't getting paid the agreed (or court mandated) amount, and also more people needing to know what to do when they can't pay.

2008's increased interest in grandparent visitation rights could also continue to grow in 2009. With widely varying state laws as to if and how grandparents can secure custody or visitation rights, along with strained economic and familial situations, grandparents' need for information on their legal options will grow in the new year. As states continue to attempt to address these concerns, the rules of the playing field in specific states may shift.

Gay and lesbian adoption also promises to be a highly watched legal issue affecting states across the country. Until November, Florida was the only state which still had a ban on such adoptions written into law. Although a Florida court recently held the law unconstitutional, the ability of gay and lesbian couples to secure adoption of kids, and legal mechanisms to challenge discrimination in this area, will continue to spark interests and passions nation-wide.

Marriage & Domestic Partnership

The right of same sex partners to marry is not a new hot button issue, but its intensity will grow in 2009. 2008 saw not only California's controversy and continuing court battle over the banning of same sex marriage by Proposition 8, but also movement in the opposite direction in some other states.

In October, Connecticut became the third state to authorize same sex couples to marry on the exact same terms as opposite sex couples (though California's Proposition 8 subsequently brought the total back down to two). More states are likely to continue the pattern shown in California, with litigants using the courts to challenge laws forbidding same sex marriage, legislatures attempting to craft laws governing the issue without violating their constitutions' guarantees of equal protection, and opponents of same sex marriage turning to constitutional amendment if their state's supreme court recognizes the rights of same sex couples to marry.

Others will need to navigate the diverse law affecting non-traditional heterosexual couples. Changing cohabitation patterns and divergent state laws give many the need to know whether they can be bound by a common law marriage in their state, what constitutes a common law marriage in states that recognize them, and how this might affect a potential split.

Small Business

Challenging economic times increase interest in the laws around small business on many fronts. People who lost their job, or who simply need additional income to make ends meet can and do turn to setting up their own business ventures. Existing businesses faced with potential collapse find a need to familiarize themselves with laws relating to ending a business, firing employees and restructuring debt, to name a few.

Both existing and would-be business owners increasingly turn to Do-It-Yourself legal solutions for such needs as incorporating a business or drawing up basic contracts. With the myriad issues facing small businesses, they also often come to see the need for legal counsel to navigate their state's processes. A trying time even in years of plenty, tax time in 2009 promises to feature many small businesses looking for guidance in dealing with their state and federal taxes.

By: FindLaw Staff