Future Law

Technology Drives Access to Justice to the People and the Lawyers

Access To JusticeMaria is about to need access to justice. She lives a respectable, simple life. She’s a single mother working a full-time, hourly wage job with some benefits. It’s enough to support her, her two kids, and her elderly father in their cozy two-bedroom apartment. Her rent, car payment, child care and grocery bills use up most of her bi-weekly paycheck, so she relies on her credit cards to stay on top of any extraordinary expenses. Overall, she’s getting by and doing fine as the sole provider. Then, Maria comes home to a notice on her apartment door. It’s a note from her landlord saying she has ten days to move out as he is selling the building to a developer. Now what?

Maria is not a lawyer. She doesn’t know any lawyers. She has no idea how to hire a lawyer, or if she could afford one anyway. Maria just wants to know her legal rights and options. This just doesn’t seem right to her. She doesn’t own a computer, so Maria uses her cell phone to search for any free legal aid in her area. This only makes her more discouraged with the alphabet soup list of legal aid organization acronyms in the search results. Her confusion begets only more confusion.

Maria pauses, closes her eyes, and pictures a future where help is accessible. A future with a virtual, walk-up legal help desk where you find pro bono attorneys to address your legal questions through a secure portal without leaving your home or from anywhere by using your mobile device. Where your access to legal resources – your access to justice – is literally at your own fingertips.

A Virtual Legal Help Desk

That reality is here. The future is now for Maria and others in Illinois. Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) has launched such a program with the American Bar Association (ABA) under the name “Legal Answers” with the primary goal of increasing access to the legal profession. Unlike a static informational website, this portal allows users to submit a legal question to be answered by a volunteer lawyer.

For the user, this creates a secure, confidential forum to have their civil legal matters addressed by pro bono attorneys with substantive expertise in the area of law in which the question was asked. For the attorneys, this online interaction provides easily managed pro bono service opportunities and flexibility to contribute more as their schedule permits. ILAO plans to use this tool to address access to justice needs throughout Illinois with support from the Illinois Bar Foundation and the Illinois State Bar Association. Clearly the population and geographical characteristics of the state make this type of online program vital to reaching the demands faced in its urban and rural areas alike.

While the Legal Answers program may be new to Illinois, it was first developed in Tennessee in 2011 and has already been replicated in at least six other states – Indiana, Minnesota, Alabama, South Carolina, Arkansas and West Virginia. Just last year, the ABA adopted Tennessee’s model and continues to promote its distribution as open source to any other states wishing to implement the Legal Answers program.

The promotion of accessibility and the ever increasing efficiency of solving people’s legal problems through the use of technology, including future innovations in the delivery of legal services, is gradually reducing those barriers standing in the way of equal justice under the law for all. Chief Judge Merrick Garland of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has said, “The legitimacy of the rule of law depends on equal justice. Equal justice depends on equal access. So in the end, the rule of law depends on the thousands of men and women who do the extraordinary difficult work of providing legal services to those in need.”

Technology Connects Those In Need 

While the Legal Answers program continues to expand nationwide, we again see technology serving as a catalyst to addressing access to justice in a partnership of Microsoft with the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) – an independent nonprofit established by Congress to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans.

LSC estimates that only about 20 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income people in the United States are adequately addressed. Improvement to servicing those needs begins with accessibility through simple, efficient channels using technology, which is the direct goal of the partnership.

Through at least $1 million in funding and project management expertise provided by Microsoft, the LSC will develop an “Access to Justice Portal.” The portal will use triage technology to direct the users to the most appropriate level of effective service under the circumstances, taking account of things like the nature of the matter, the capacity of the client, whether the opponent is represented, and what’s at stake. This will be done with internet and cloud technology. It will be accessible from any device. And it will be open source so that others can replicate it nationwide to transform access to justice with the help of Pro Bono Net, a nonprofit that promotes innovative uses of technology to increase access to justice. The ultimate goal is to help people every step of the way toward addressing their legal problem.

Eliminating Barriers Help People Exercise Their Rights

“To marry technology and the law in a way that expands access to justice for so many people is really going to be the model of things to come,” explained Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch while speaking at the White House on the topic of technology and access to justice to a group of national leaders in pro bono legal services from across the nation. She continued the conversation from the position that the current state of access to justice in the United States is unacceptable. She equated justice as a commodity that too many Americans cannot afford, rather than a right they deserve. Inadequate access to justice can devastate families, damage communities, and erode Americans’ trust in our institutions of government and law.

Attorney General Lynch concluded her remarks by pointing out:

And realistically, how can you expect someone to trust their government when they cannot even get into the courthouse door to be heard? Or if they do, they find that the justice system that is supposed to be free and open and working for them, is charging some kind of ‘entrance fee’?

Experienced practitioners of law may easily forget that the legal system is a confusing and sometimes even scary place to attempt to navigate without an attorney. When faced with such unknowns, many individuals are denied any access to justice because they give up on the process before even starting. And that is assuming they know they are even entitled to some relief and justice in the first place.

Change is happening to address access to justice, and technology is the driver of that change. The work of Legal Answers and the LSC partnership with Microsoft are just two examples of how technology narrows the gap between those in need and those in service to them. Get involved in the change and be part of movement to equal justice for all.

Consider becoming a volunteer attorney for ILAO’s Illinois Legal Answers program and keep an eye out for more progress on LSC’s partnership with Microsoft.

For another example of using technology to get legal help, watch Mike’s story brought to you by ILAO.

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