August 31, 2020

Suffolk Law’s MassAccess Project: Scaling Justice with Rapid Form Automation

Quinten Steenhuis

Software developers like to say that you can’t deliver a baby in 1 month by putting 9 women on the job. But sometimes when the stars align right, you can sneak one past the software development gods. Massachusetts has proven that with the right combination of volunteers and free software tools, you can drag a court into the virtual world in record time. The result is Suffolk Law School’s MassAccess project.

This February, I accepted a new job as a clinical fellow at Suffolk’s internationally-regarded Legal Innovation and Technology (LIT) Lab. I started during the first week of quarantine in March. Days later, the Chief Justice of Massachusetts’ highest court put out a call for bold ideas to address the burgeoning impact on people who need emergency access to the court. Our Access to Justice Commission as well as the law school’s Dean, Andrew Pearlman, made it more explicit: what could the LIT Lab do to help?

Our Chief Justice rightly saw danger in the courts being closed. The need for access to courts doesn’t go away just because of the pandemic. Tenants face illegal lockouts or dangerous conditions; in lockdown with abusers, survivors of domestic violence are in special danger. People found ways. I learned of a domestic violence survivor sitting hours outside the courthouse to be given a stack of forms to fill in on her own.

The idea that we came up with was simple but daunting: take about 30 court processes that are typically paper-only and automate them so that a pro se litigant can fill them out on a smartphone in a step-by-step, guided process and then have them directly delivered to the court. No downloading and printing; no accounts to create. I have a lot of experience with this work: a simple form might take a dozen hours, but www.gbls.org/MADE, the eviction defense system that I built at Greater Boston Legal Services, took a year’s steady work from myself, a full-time fellow, and countless donated hours.

An automated online form is not just a PDF. A PDF provides fill-in-the-blanks. A good interactive legal app applies logic to those blanks. It provides context and help. It’s more like a lawyer sitting across the table than a stack of paper.

There was no true shortcut here. It takes a lot of work to build out these apps. While a single lawyer helping a single client can fill in a form pretty quickly, when you automate it you need to think of every fact pattern, every edge case, and often handle situations that the drafters of the form or statute never considered. Automation also requires significant time in design, thought about plain language, and testing to avoid bugs. You cannot just digitize a form as-is and expect it to be usable. In most cases, a poorly automated form is worse than paper.

Our secret was assembling a massive number of volunteers, mostly via Twitter, and building just the right tools to make the process scale. More than 200 people from around the world responded to our call, while about 100 contributed significant time. Some worked full time for months. Notably Maeve MacGlinchey, a South African lawyer, volunteered full-time as project manager for 4 months. Other core volunteers logged dozens or hundreds of hours from Ireland, the Netherlands, India, and Australia, and of course Greater Boston. We had many institutions donate staff time as well, with Greater Boston Legal Services, Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and Code for Boston being crucial partners.

We started with the excellent open source docassemble platform, and built our tooling around that. A critical early piece was building a tool to turn a correctly labeled PDF into a runnable draft of an interactive, step-by-step form. We planned via Zoom, Slack, Trello, and Google Docs. Every meeting and training was memorialized on YouTube. We built training materials and developed a style guide, including plain language and coding advice. We built out a database of courts and a court locator tool. And of course: we built interactive forms! This summer, full-time students learned to program and created working forms in a matter of weeks.

Our biggest success story is what I consider a true work of art: a domestic violence protective order web app. The app walks a survivor through the hundreds of questions that go into a typical petition and makes it a sympathetic, safe, and easy to use guided process. The result can be up to a 20 page form that handles all of the complex custody and related issues that fit into a domestic violence petition.

Our project isn’t ending. Suffolk’s law school laboratory is uniquely positioned to maintain momentum. My lab director David Colarusso (@Colarusso on Twitter) and I hope to engage dozens of law students this coming year to continue learning new, marketable skills while producing forms to meet a critical need. Everything we have produced is completely free and open source. We hope to inspire other jurisdictions around the world to pick up our assembly-line style process to automate their own courts for a post Covid-19 world.

To learn more or to volunteer, visit https://massaccess.suffolklitlab.org or email QSteenhuis@suffolk.edu. Follow @QSteenhuis and @SufffolkLitLab on Twitter.

Quinten Steenhuis

Fellow, Suffolk University Law School

Quinten Steenhuis is a clinical fellow at Suffolk University Law School in their Legal Innovation and Technology Lab. Before starting at Suffolk Law School in March 2020, Quinten practiced housing and eviction defense law at Greater Boston Legal Services since 2008, and has been a professional programmer and web application developer since 2001. He speaks at area law schools and blogs frequently on the topic of legal technology. He works on projects addressing social justice and access to justice with technology focusing on the topic of housing and evictions. Quinten is an active member of his local community, serving as an appointed member of the City of Cambridge's Recycling Advisory Committee, serving on the Access to Justice Commission's working group on housing through the Justice for All initiative, founding a neighborhood political action group, and serving as the long-time president of a Scrabble club in Somerville, MA. He received his B.Sc. in Logic and Computation with an additional B.Sc. in Political Science from Carnegie Mellon University and J.D. from Cornell Law School.