Tech-Enabled Legal Organization Increases Access to Justice
While legal aid organizations exist to provide legal advice and representation to low-income people, more than sixty (60%) percent of individuals who qualify are turned away by legal aid groups due to “the lack of adequate resources.” The resources are staff to provide legal information, legal advice, and legal representation. In other words, these organizations do not have enough staff, to aid a majority of those seeking their support.
In the old economy model, the obvious solution would be to seek more funding to hire more staff to provide legal services. For example, the LSC is requesting that Congress double its federal appropriations in 2022. This money would mostly be distributed to legal aid organizations funded by the LSC who would then use it to hire more staff. This is the solution of throwing more money at a problem, not the development of new solutions to the problem.
The more effective new economy solution is to unleash the power of technology to fill the access to justice gap at scale. Investing in technology to empower legal aid organizations to be able to help more people, is the most efficient and cost-effective way for individuals and families to get justice.
While legal aid organizations do rely on some general technology such as online informational websites, word processing software, and e-mail to help make their operations more efficient, there are few plug-and-play technologies designed specifically to help legal aid organizations scale their impact by empowering clients to be self-represent litigants.
An exception is Upsolve. Upsolve is legal technology that provides users with a “TurboTax” for bankruptcy. The software promises to reduce a 9- or 10-hour manual process to a 90-minute tech-empowered process. By leveraging Upsolve, a legal aid organization can help up to five people in the same amount of time it would have taken to help one.
A new product category is needed to advance innovations that close the justice gap for self-represented individuals. A Pro Se Support System is an online system designed to help self-represented litigants from the beginning when they recognize that they have a legal problem all the way through to trial. An effective Pro Se Support System must help ordinary people with the ability to:
understand if they have a legitimate legal case
understand the process and terminology used in court
gather necessary documents and evidence
create a trial presentation and
finalize post-judgement resolution of the dispute. Like filing your taxes online, the system should guide users step-by-step to build their most complete case and advance it to resolution.
Whereas Upsolve focuses solely on bankruptcy filing, the Pro Se Support System targets a broader set of legal problems. While not all litigants or cases are right for a self-help system, many are. By providing capable litigants with straightforward case management self-help tool, the legal aid organization will free up its scarce resources to help less capable litigants or those with complicated cases. This allows legal aid attorneys and the pro bono attorneys that support them to practice at the top of their licenses instead of spending time on tasks that require less or no specialized legal skills.
Further, a Pro Se Support System can also provide legal aid organizations with the ability to manage casework more effectively with outside pro bono counsel. The system serves as a centralized database of records, eliminating the need for numerous back-and-forth e-mails between the legal aid attorney, pro bono counsel and his litigants.
Most modern-day organizations and many government institutions have been revolutionized by offering scalable self-help technology to their users. For example, most bank customers no longer visit brick and mortar branches for common transactions, and the IRS supports the integration of third-party do-it-yourself technology providers like Turbo-Tax and H&R Block, among others. This use of technology has allowed these organizations to give their staff more time to focus on subject matter problems requiring staff with more specialized education and training.
The American justice system needs to follow the example of other institutions that have been revolutionized with do-it-yourself technology. A tech-enabled legal aid organization, as well as other organizations that provide services to their members, can reap the same benefits from adopting more technology such as a Pro Se Support System and help address the issue of access to justice in America
- Binh Dang is the President and founder of Quest for Justice.