The struggle for self-represented litigants (SRL) in the legal aid arena can be vast and complicated. They need the ability to identify whether there is a legal aspect to their problems. They must find and apply the rules, regulations, and statutes. If SRLs can successfully maneuver through those tasks, they might be able to develop a comprehensive analysis to reach a strategy to address their needs. Of course, all this assumes they were able to diagnose their needs correctly in the first place.
It all begins with knowing where to look to even find the right path to a potential solution. It is overwhelming for many lawyers at times, let alone for those with no legal education or access to the proper resources. These struggles are further perpetuated by challenges such as understanding how to navigate the process, completing the required forms and filings in conformity with the rules, preparing for court, and properly presenting evidence at a hearing or trial.
The gears of the court machine are often impacted as more litigants come to court without representation, struggling to properly navigate the legal process. The recently published National Center for State Courts (NCSC) Landscape of Civil Litigation in State Courts study notes that, “[o]ne of the most striking findings in the dataset was the relatively large proportion of cases (76%) in which at least one party was self-represented.” The NCSC study was confined to civil cases only, and, in family court cases, it is not uncommon for between 60 and 80 percent to involve at least one SRL at some point in the litigation.
Courthouse staff and judges encounter delays and confusion as court filings are incomplete or not in accordance with the requirements. Pro se litigants are often met with barriers to telling their side of the case due to confusion over the rules of evidence or procedure.
Step Through the Portal
So where can one start? A vast online collection of information, forms, advice and other resources was how we used to address these legal aid needs. Then, access to the information became less of an issue, whereas navigation became the new demand.
In Illinois, Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) developed a one-stop website as a destination to begin looking for a solution to a problem for SRLs (and lawyers alike). ILAO’s portal Illinoislegalaid.org is more than just a static, informational website. Instead, it uses the information you provide to steer you in the direction of how to deal with your legal aid issue or where you might find direct assistance with your needs for free, for a reduced fee, or through a paid service, depending on your circumstances. And it seems to be working, with over 150,000 visits in January 2017.
Illinois Legal Aid Online uses technology to lower barriers to the law so that people can understand their legal options, make informed decisions, and when necessary represent themselves in court.
Users of the portal may have one or more legal issues imbedded in their problem. The portal uses a series of simple questions to diagnose their situation, what type of help they need, where are they located, and what is their income level. Through this “legal triage” process, the user finds information about the issue they are dealing with, useful forms, referrals to applicable programs (depending on their economic status, location, etc.), and even online intake to seek free online assistance from a legal professional or aid organization.
Legal Aid on the National Stage
This legal aid portal model is being implemented throughout the United States. Many people can’t afford a lawyer and there are not enough pro bono attorneys to help everyone, but they still must engage in the legal system to solve critical problems like domestic violence, divorce, eviction, and foreclosure. These portals provide an ecosystem of numerous paths to legal services and other options. Many legal portals have the capacity to serve various languages, technology proficiencies, and communication platforms via computer or mobile device (the majority of ILAO users visit from a mobile device).
ILAO is one of 25 statewide legal portals using technology to ensure that effective assistance is provided to those otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs. In addition to helping SRLs access legal information and locate referrals to affordable legal services, this system of portals hopes to connect the public to more information about their legal rights, court information, social services in their area, and other resources.
Through LawHelp.org, people can be linked to their state’s free legal aid programs, information and forms. LawHelp.org was developed and is maintained by Pro Bono Net in partnership with hundreds of nonprofit legal aid, pro bono, court-based programs and libraries across the country. LawHelp.org launched in 2001 with support from the Legal Services Corporation and the Open Society Institute.
Legal Aid: Anytime, Anywhere, Anyone
Those without legal counsel are finding more resources. These resources are not just to help the SRL address a legal-based need, but, and arguably more important, to identify their legal need. Access to justice is no longer centered on an effort to appoint legal assistance of counsel to fulfill pro bono needs. The access to justice solution starts well before the courthouse steps. It starts when people seek to discover their needs in the first place. Only then might a SRL begin to find the path to a remedy, or at least treat the symptoms.
Technology has made a substantial impact in delivering access to justice. New paths have been paved to determine the most useful and feasible solutions for particular problems. Online portals performing legal triage is just one self-help tool, available any time from a device in the palm of your hand. Technology should continue to be embraced to support legal aid efforts while accounting for not just what legal aid is being delivered, but how.