The US access to justice community struggle under greater burdens than our own. In particular, their equivalent of civil legal aid is significantly lower. They also grapple with the complexity caused by federal differences in law. No state, least of all the US, is going to fund full representation at the levels that their (or our) justice system is designed for. It is a deeply damaging reality with which all democracies, advanced or emerging, struggle to take serious notice of.
Partly for that reason, the US Legal Services Corporation has led an initiative which seeks to maximise the potential for effective assistance to be provided through technology. At the end of last year it published a very interesting report drawing together a strategy developed from a summit of experts and interested parties which seeks to develop a coherent set of priorities for tackling the enormous topic which is the US (but also every nation’s) access to justice problems (Report of the Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice) [I am guessing I owe a HT to Richard Zorza for this but it may be Ron Friedman]
In preparation for the Summit, a planning group commissioned a series of papers (http://jolt.law.harvard.edu/articles/pdf/v26/26HarvJLTech241.pdf and http://jolt.law.harvard.edu/symposium/). Expert participants were asked to consider the top priorities for action given issues of feasibility, cost, etc. The planning group decided to focus on the top six activities identified:
“(1) Document assembly for self-represented litigants
(2) better “triage”—that is, identification of the most appropriate form of service for clients in light of the totality of their circumstances;
(3) mobile technologies;
(4) remote service delivery;
(5) expert systems and checklists; and
(6) unbundled services”
The report is well worth a read for the coherence with which it seeks to link these 6 strands together and the sense that (with a good deal of work; good will and funding) the strategy is achievable. I have yet to see anything similar here (although the CJC report on LiPs was admirable and has overlaps). The strategy for implementing this vision has five main components, in the words of the report:
1. Creating in each state a unified “legal portal” which, by an automated triage process, directs persons needing legal assistance to the most appropriate form of assistance and guides self-represented litigants through the entire legal process
2. Deploying sophisticated document assembly applications to support the creation of legal documents by service providers and by litigants themselves and linking the document creation process to the delivery of legal information and limited scope legal representation
3. Taking advantage of mobile technologies to reach more persons more effectively
4. Applying business process/analysis to all access-to-justice activities to make them as efficient as practicable
5. Developing “expert systems” to assist lawyers and other services providers
The vision for achieving this is:
• Every state will create a statewide access portal that provides an easy way for a person to obtain assistance with a civil legal issue.
• The portal will use an automated process to refer each requester to the lowest-cost service likely to produce a satisfactory result in her or his case.
• The automated process will ultimately be informed by a sophisticated “triage” algorithm continually updated for each state by feedback data on the outcomes for persons who have previously sought assistance through the portal. 4
• The portal will support a broad variety of access-to-justice services provided by courts, the private bar, legal aid entities, libraries, and others who collaborate in implementing the initiative. The systems of all collaborating entities will exchange information automatically to support each other’s applications and to enable the accumulation and analysis of information on the functioning of the entire access-to-justice process.
• The baseline service available in a state will be a website accessible through computers, tablets, or smartphones that provides sophisticated but easily understandable information on legal rights and responsibilities, legal remedies, and forms and procedures for pursuing those remedies. The statewide access portal will link a requester with the most appropriate section of the website.
The rest of the report is digestible also sufficiently detailed to give it plausibility. It may be an optimistic document and it will not be without its detractors; but it is also a sign of the possibilities and the steer given by strong leadership and concerted action. The demise of the Legal Services Commission here and the budget cuts severely diminished any hope that this kind of lead might come from Central Government. Perhaps the predicted crisis over litigants in person will stimulate a rethink here.
If you want to follow what is going on in relation to these issues in the States I highly recommend Richard Zorza’s blog.
Many thanks to all the Lawyerwatch readers, especially but not only to those who have emailed, commented, tweeted or posted this blog onto colleagues and friends. I really am extremely grateful for any signs of interest! And for those of you with a musical bent let me encourage a few moments with Nils Frahm, his latest Spaces, is lovely and shows what can be achieved when technology and craft are well married together. A little Youtube clip is here.