As Demand Rises, Civil Legal Aid Innovates to Expand Access to Resources

By Lonnie Powers

Demand for civil legal aid continues to outstrip supply. Among attorneys and others in the field, this is known as the “justice gap.”

It’s clear that we will never close this gap unless our federal and state funders dramatically increase their support. In the meantime, we must also find ways to expand access to information that can help those in need. While there is no one way to do this, self-help legal centers and smarter use of technology are surely part of the solution.

In 1996, the Legal Services Corporation, an independent entity created by Congress in 1974 to support civil legal aid organizations around the country, issued a report touting the benefits of technology to increase the capacity of civil legal aid organizations. With its enthusiastic descriptions of self-help kiosks (“The Minnesota Twins sell tickets via kiosks which allow the potential buyer to ‘see’ what seats are available on a given date, and what the view is like from those seats, reportedly prompting many ticket upgrades”), the 18-year old report is quite dated. But its basic message still holds true today: by using technology and self-help centers, the civil legal aid profession can “reshape delivery of legal services” and “assist millions of additional clients at very low cost.”

Today, self-help centers and technology have radically reshaped the delivery of civil legal aid. There are now online sources of legal assistance in each of the 50 states that provide information on civil legal cases related to basic human needs. In Alaska, that state’s court system has set up an online Family Law Self-Help Center with videos and articles providing information about child support and custody, divorce, and domestic violence. The Texas Legal Services Center runs, which provides free online information related to housing and employment discrimination, domestic violence, and other critically important civil legal matters.

In some instances, such as Massachusetts’, these online self-help centers assist civil legal aid advocates and attorneys in “more easily, accurately, and efficiently [creating] legal documents for their clients,” as Vincent Morris, director of the pioneering Arkansas Legal Services Partnership, wrote last year for the Mississippi Law Journal. (For a comprehensive overview of this aspect of the legal landscape, Morris’s “Navigating Justice: Self-Help Resources, Access To Justice, and Whose Job Is It Anyway?” is a must read, and it argues convincingly for the inclusion and expansion of “innovative self-help resources” to “ensure that unrepresented civil litigants have meaningful access to justice.”)

A number of states including Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, New York, and others have combined the self-help aspect of online research with live help in the form of instant messaging from legal experts, who are known as “navigators.” (This model has been employed by the health care industry in the form of “patient navigators”―people who are not health care providers, but who are nonetheless familiar with the health care system and assist new patients in navigating among specialists and primary care providers.)

Yet another method of expanding access to civil legal aid information is through self-help centers located in court houses and staffed by attorneys. A district judge had nothing but praise for the Civil Law-Self-Help Center set up on the bottom floor of Las Vegas Justice Court: When litigants are better prepared, “the judge can make intelligent decisions,” District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez told the Las Vegas Sun. “The traffic through the center is much better than I anticipated, and I’m impressed with how the staff has handled it.”

In Massachusetts, “Lawyer of the Day” programs in housing courts around the state provide advice and assistance — but not representation — to income eligible tenants and landlords. Courts in Massachusetts are also in the process of opening two pilot self-help centers, one in the western part of the state in Greenfield, and a second in Boston.

Nothing can replace the value brought by a skilled attorney or advocate to civil legal issues affecting basic human needs such as housing, shelter, and family safety. But expanding access to information through the use of technology and self-help centers to meet rising demand must be a part of the solution to closing the gap.

Lonnie A. Powers is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation. He has more than 40 years of policy and legal experience at the state and national levels, having devoted the majority of his career to establishing, building, sustaining and revitalizing legal aid organizations. Lonnie began his legal career in his native Arkansas, first with the Attorney General’s Office and later with Legal Services of Arkansas, where he served as Executive Director.