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Tech sector and legal community create digital resources to meet civil legal needs

This post was first published by South End News.

By Lonnie Powers

We rely on mobile apps and computer software to manage our health, pay bills, find the college of our dreams and do our taxes. We surf the web for how-to articles and YouTube videos for tips and tutorials on everything from oil changes to helping a cat deliver her kittens. The digital age has made performing a range of time-consuming, complex, expensive, or simply annoying tasks infinitely easier and cheaper-including costs associated with paying for professional expertise. So how about do-it-yourself legal aid? Fortunately, there’s an app for that, too-in fact, there are many.

Decades of inadequate state and federal funding for civil legal aid programs, which provide free lawyers and legal help in noncriminal matters (e.g. divorce, protection from domestic violence, denial of veterans benefits) to people who are struggling to make ends meet, mean that civil legal aid organizations around the country funded by state and local governments, foundations and private contributions, as well as the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC), are unable to address the needs of most of those who seek their help. In Massachusetts, for example, 65% of the eligible residents who seek help from civil legal aid have to be turned away.

In the face of this persistent shortage of funding, and in an effort to assist a greater number of people in need, the tech sector and the legal community are continually developing new digital resources that can effectively help people help themselves with their legal issues.

“Technology allows us to push out information to the public that was previously accessible only to lawyers,” LSC President James J. Sandman has said. “It can provide user-friendly form-preparation assistance for the unrepresented, much like TurboTax helps people prepare tax forms. It can stretch limited resources for legal aid providers, allowing them to automate processes that lawyers used to handle. It can enable legal aid offices to offer some assistance to people they otherwise would have to turn away with nothing.”

Indeed, the tech company Upsolve, which began in Harvard Law School’s Access to Justice Lab, built a software program that helps users complete Chapter 7 bankruptcy paperwork on their own. Executive Director Jonathan Petts, a former corporate bankruptcy lawyer, developed the program out of concern for the millions of Americans who remain stuck in poverty because they can’t afford to pay a lawyer to help them file for bankruptcy and a desire to automate the time-consuming data entry associated with the process. To date, the company has erased roughly $1.5 million in debt for low-income Americans, helping them build a more financially stable future. It has also cut the amount of time attorneys must spend on bankruptcy cases from six-to-10 hours to two.

Similarly, walks New York City renters through the process of documenting, lodging, and mediating housing violation complaints as well as helping them prepare materials for housing court. The app also allows legal aid lawyers, other advocates and community organizers to do targeted outreach, gather evidence and track useful housing data. JustFix co-founder Georges Clement says his product aims to level the playing field in housing courtbetween New York City property owners, 90 percent of whom have lawyers, and tenants, 90 percent of whom are unrepresented.

In California, the Self Help Assistance and Referral Program, or SHARP, is a self-help center that assists more than 30,000 people annually in dealing with family law issues, guardianships, evictions, small claims, name changes, restraining orders and other matters. SHARP offers classes via videoconference in addition to fielding consumer questions via email and phone, enabling people in far-flung corners of the state to access services remotely.

“The knowledge shared with me was directly responsible for my success during trial,” said one user.

“[SHARP] directly reduces the emotional and financial burden of legal proceedings for individuals, their families and the community,” said another.

Since 2000, LSC’s Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) program has awarded $57 million in grants for hundreds of innovative, effective projects around the country that use technology to help meet the civil legal needs of Americans who are just scraping by. Among them is an initiative at the Worcester, Massachusetts-based Community Legal Aid (CLA) to streamline the organization’s intake process by creating a user-friendly online application in both English and Spanish that is integrated with its case management system.

Whether through do-it-yourself technology or time-saving digital tools like CLA’s online intake portal, expanding the use of technology to help civil legal aid serve more clients is welcome and necessary. To be sure, technology is no substitute for a skilled attorney or advocate when dealing with complicated civil legal issues affecting housing, shelter, and family safety. But it is an important tool with vast possibilities as we continue to work to provide equal justice for the most vulnerable among us-all of them.

Lonnie Powers is the executive director of the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation.