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Law Practice Today

December 2022

Justice at the Crossroads: Lessons Learned from 20 Years of Automating Justice

Jessica Bolack Frank and John Mayer


  • Lawyers are the stewards of the justice system, and must step up to do something about the access to justice crisis in America.
Justice at the Crossroads: Lessons Learned from 20 Years of Automating Justice

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Every day, millions of Americans are “forced to ‘go it alone’ without legal representation in disputes where they risk losing their job, their livelihood, their home, or their children, or to seek a restraining order against their abuser.” Unfortunately, there aren’t the funds or the political will to provide a free attorney for everyone who needs one. The justice gap is the difference between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and the resources available to meet those needs. Even if low-income people identify their problem as a legal one, make it to a legal aid organization, and are income-eligible for the assistance, 50 percent of the time they are turned away due to a lack of attorney resources. With nowhere else to go, these people by necessity become self-represented litigants.

One of the most challenging aspects of representing yourself is court forms. Forms are designed by lawyers and for lawyers. Often forms are overly complicated, full of legal jargon, and too difficult for self-represented litigants to complete on their own. Sometimes, by design, forms are used as gatekeepers of the justice system. While legal aid organizations and other legal non-profits try to recruit volunteer attorneys to provide the pro bono hours necessary to draft legal documents for these clients, the demand far outpaces the supply.

But what if we could multiply the impact of a single attorney by a magnitude of a hundred, or a thousand, with technology? This is where a simple, yet profoundly powerful idea comes in. For the past 20 years, a small but mighty cohort of impassioned legal technologists across the country has been working to help self-represented litigants overcome the hurdle of court forms and bridge part of the justice gap through document automation.

In the early 2000s, a book was published by Illinois Tech Chicago-Kent College of Law and the Illinois Institute of Design called Access to Justice: Meeting the Needs of Self-Represented Litigants. One of the main takeaways from it was that “the simple act of filling out forms poses unique challenges that many low-income self-represented litigants have trouble overcoming.” Based on this research, Chicago-Kent’s Center for Access to Justice and Technology (CAJT) partnered with The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) to create a software tool called A2J Author®. Released in 2005, A2J Author is a tool that was intended to capture the legal expertise of a lawyer into a “guided interview” that could be accessed hundreds of thousands of times, 24/7, by self-represented litigants online. It multiplies the impact of a single lawyer’s expertise in a way that does not require coding. Lawyers, law students, court personnel, and other legal professionals use the tools within A2J Author to build out sophisticated expert systems to help self-represented litigants accurately complete their court forms.

These automated forms, called A2J Guided Interviews ® walk the self-represented litigants through a series of steps on a pathway to the graphical courthouse, where they can download, print, and submit their completed court forms. A2J Guided Interviews break the complexity of court forms into one digestible piece of information at a time. Like the saying goes, the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. A2J Guided Interviews can often speed up the process of form completion by stripping away the overwhelming nature of the forms and serving up one question at a time. Along the pathway, there is also interaction between a guide avatar, meant to represent the “lawyer” helping the user, and the user’s avatar. The guide avatar asks questions and provides additional information. Some of the magic of an A2J Guided Interview comes with assistance called “Just-in-Time Learning.” This includes additional legal information at the point in which the self-represented litigant is likely to get stuck. It can be pop-up definitions of legal terms, or more extensive explanations of legal concepts in text, graphics, or videos. The software is engineered for self-represented litigants with a focus on usability, plain language, mobile access, and accessibility. With A2J Guided Interviews, the focus is always on the self-represented litigant experience.

Since 2005, over 7 million people have used an A2J Guided Interview to address their legal issue. Thousands of court forms have been automated by legal aid and court professionals in 44 U.S. states, as well as Canada and Australia. A decade-long partnership with Pro Bono Net’s national LawHelp Interactive platform helps 600,000 people annually. According to A2J viewer feedback forms, self-represented litigant end users:

 “[l]ove it” and find the interviews “an extremely helpful, easy-to-use and appreciated system.”

One particularly powerful use of A2J Author is the New York State Unified Court System’s DIY Forms, which have 39 A2J Guided Interviews, from uncontested divorce to paternity petitions to name changes. These A2J Guided Interviews have been run more than 125,000 times per year, every year, for the past decade. Another organization focused on automating justice is Michigan Legal Help. It has a catalog of 33 A2J Guided Interviews, and its petition for personal protection order and proposed order alone has helped 20,000 people this year.

The COVID pandemic was a watershed moment for legal technology. The justice system was forced online, and it was a sink-or-swim situation in many jurisdictions. It forced a mindset reset into the possibilities of technology in the legal space. Users now expect that their government interactions can be done from the safety and convenience of their own homes and at any time. Average daily runs of A2J Guided Interviews tripled from February 2020 to January 2021 (see below). Jurisdictions with automated forms were far ahead of those that were still paper-based. Automation moved from a novel technology to a basic necessity of a modern court system. Texas’ Lone Star Legal Aid used A2J Guided Interviews for COVID emergency benefits, foreclosure or eviction relief, and help with applying for unemployment online, by the middle of 2020. The Kentucky Administrative Offices of the Court went from having no document assembly forms to 10 A2J Guided Interviews in one year, including domestic violence petitions, dissolution of marriage, and modifications of child support. These new automated forms have improved access to justice for hundreds of thousands of people.

Automating justice is at a crossroads. So much work still must be done just in automating forms. A study in 2020 showed that only about 20% of available court forms had been automated using any software tool, not just A2J Author. The depth and breadth of automated forms catalogs vary greatly from state to state. As William Gibson said, “the future has arrived - it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” Automated court forms improve access to justice. They make it easier for self-represented litigants to start and complete complicated legal processes. Automating forms using A2J Author has a track record that is almost 20 years long and has helped over 7 million people. However, we’ve reached a point where hundreds of “low-hanging fruit” forms could be easily automated, but the technology isn’t innovative or new anymore, and funding is lacking. It’s the old infrastructure problem, where repaving an existing road or fixing a crumbling bridge isn’t as exciting as a new road or a new bridge.

Funding for this work for many years came through the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grants (LSC TIGs). LSC legal aid organizations had too many people for their lawyers to help, so they turned to automated forms as a way to at least offer something to those to whom they couldn’t offer full-service representation. It was an end run around a justice system that did not address self-represented litigants. While this has shifted slightly and wasn’t true for all courts, there is still a lack of political will and funding for automating court forms. With 20 years and 7 million+ use cases, automated forms should be as commonplace in a courthouse tech stack as email, websites, and phones. Every single court should have automated forms available online for public consumption. The landlord and the tenant, the debtor and the creditor, the petitioner and the respondent, should be able to access the forms they need to interact with our justice system online with basic legal information supplied along with the actual form. Pictures of paper forms uploaded to a website aren’t enough. Fillable PDFs don’t cut it. To truly be a bridge for self-represented litigants, the forms have to be automated - interactive, with legal information tailored to the user’s situation, that provide complete filled-in form packages ready to be filed.

There does not appear to be an easy solution for funding the automation of the additional 80% of forms that should be automated, or maintaining the existing catalog of already automated forms. The initial LSC TIG money is no longer available for this work on the same scale as before. The principle that every court form should be automated as a basic tenet of justice hasn’t taken root in courts across the country. This must change.

Lawyers are the stewards of the justice system, and must step up to do something about the access to justice crisis in America. The members of the Law Practice Division of the ABA are the “can do” work horses of law practice, and so we hope our efforts and message will resonate with you. We can’t solve the entire problem all at once — there are not enough dollars to hire more legal aid attorneys or enough volunteer and pro bono hours to throw at the problem. Automating forms isn’t the end all and be all of the justice gap. Major structural changes to our justice system are likely needed.

However, document automation is a proven, effective, scalable, and relatively inexpensive way to take a bite out of the elephant. We need champions to advocate for form automation in legal aid organizations and courthouses across the country. We need new and innovative ideas for creating sustainable funding models that allow us to support the 1000+ forms already automated and to expand to the thousands that still need to be automated.

CALI and the A2J Author team have the willingness and the automation expertise, but we need the help of the members of the ABA’s Law Practice Division. We stand ready to partner, train, brainstorm, and listen to any who share our goals. Contact us at [email protected] (John Mayer, CALI’s executive director) or [email protected] (Jessica Frank, A2J Author project manager) to learn more.