- The internet can provide a wealth of information on virtually any topic, including legal information. Finding the right information, however, can be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.
Closing the justice gap, helping those who desperately need legal assistance but cannot afford lawyers, is challenging because resources to help are so limited. But even when help is available, those who need it often do not know where to look. Properly curated, online navigators can direct anyone in need of legal information or advice, especially those with little or no understanding of their legal needs, to much-needed help.
The internet can provide a wealth of information on virtually any topic, including legal information. Finding the right information, however, can be like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Conventional search engines act as filters, but users must know what to search for. Those in search of legal help often don’t know what they don’t know—like what a complaint is or the consequences of failing to answer one—and attempt to take a crash course in the law by searching the web. Just as self-diagnosing a medical condition based upon a few symptoms may be potentially dangerous, so, too, can relying on a search engine to figure out the answer to a legal problem.
When querying a search engine, we are actually searching an index of the worldwide web created by the engine provider. Hence, not all search engines supply the same search results, either in substance or in the same order. Engine providers rely on a combination of automation (robots, spiders, and crawlers) and/or people to collect and to organize the vast amounts of information loaded onto the web each second of the day. Searching for legal solutions using an index created by robots or humans without specialized legal knowledge is not ideal.
In late 2011, the Legal Services Corporation convened a summit of leaders from legal aid societies, bar associations, courts, and government to explore how best to use technology to increase access to justice. In its December 2013 “Report of The Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice,” the group recognized that the internet contained a wealth of self-help legal information and advice, but finding the information was a challenge, since many courts, legal services, and bar associations in every jurisdiction had websites containing these resources. The LSC recommended—and through its Technology Initiative Grant program helped fund—a single web access portal in each state to which users are directed no matter where they enter the system.
But websites present many of the same challenges as search engine databases. Scrolling through pages of a website using menus, hyperlinks or other methods requires some basic understanding of the concepts being researched. This is where navigators can help.
To triage a client’s legal problem, a lawyer or paralegal typically asks the client a series of questions in plain English (or in a language the client understands) to figure out what area of the law is involved and the solution to the client’s problem. Similarly, a navigator can pose a series of questions or offer easily understood choices for the client to answer or select that will direct the client to the appropriate resources. Critically important, however, is that the resources must be vetted for their relevancy and accuracy.
For the past six years, I’ve taught law students at Chase College of Law, Northern Kentucky University, to build legal apps, many of which are intended to close the justice gap. In Spring 2020, as I had the past three years, I taught teams of students to conceive of and design legal-related apps. One group was working on a navigator for clerks of court websites to direct users to the information they needed through guided interviews and hyperlinks.
Halfway through the semester, the world changed abruptly when the coronavirus pandemic struck. As the class moved online, we discussed how we wanted to finish the semester, given the lockdowns and other challenges the world was facing. One student, a small business owner, pointed out that while many government agencies and other organizations were providing money and other resources to help individuals and businesses resources survive the pandemic, locating and understanding those resources was very difficult in a rapidly changing environment.
The class decided to pivot, and adapt the work done on the court clerk app to create a tool to help individuals, small business owners, and nonprofits find the help that was available to them. That’s how we stumbled into the world of online navigators, and the Chase Law Navigator was born.
The students collaborated with a WordPress website designer and a computer science PhD to create the navigator, which had two main functions. First, students identified all the available pandemic assistance, then located webpages describing the aid and how to obtain it, mainly from the government entities providing the help. Students then analyzed the resources to determine how to create an interface, a combination of guided interviews and easily understandable labels, so that navigator users could locate the necessary information quickly without searching the internet and sifting through dozens or more irrelevant websites.
The second part of the navigator was for users who did not find the answers or resources they were looking for. When that happened, the user could click a link to a chatbot interface, programmed by students, that would gather information about the user, or his or her business, and the legal issues they wanted help with. The chatbot would use the information gathered to populate an intake form and email it to a designated navigator account. The intake form could then be reviewed by a volunteer lawyers or law students to arrange for help at no cost.
The Chase Law Navigator went live in summer 2020, and was used during an event run by Chase, the Northern Kentucky Bar Association, and the Northern Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Because it was designed as a course project, the Navigator is no longer supported or updated. But it proved to us the usefulness of this type of tool to help address unmet legal needs.
Since the LSC’s technology report, nonprofits have created amazing navigators to direct individuals to legal help much as the Chase Law Navigator did during the pandemic. Most statewide legal portals use navigators to direct users to the appropriate information. OhioLegalHelp is a good example of such a site. So, too, is LawHelpInteractive, which provides users to free legal forms from every jurisdiction.
While excellent navigation technology has been developed to help individuals, small businesses face a justice gap of their own. As Rebecca Nieman, argues in her article “Expanding the Paradigm in Business Law Curriculum: Bridging the Access to Justice Gap for Small Businesses Starts in the Classroom,” the definition of the Justice Gap should be expanded to include not only individuals, but small and micro businesses as well. Accessing transactional and other civil legal help is simply beyond the means of many, if not most, startups and small businesses.
As director of Chase’s Small Business and Nonprofit Clinic, I have learned that many small businesses, whether new or established, simply cannot afford to hire private attorneys to handle their basic legal needs. In 2021, the Chase Small Business and Nonprofit Clinic was approached by the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development and Kentucky Commercialization Ventures to discuss ways the clinic could use technology to provide legal help to small businesses and startups across all of Kentucky. A navigator was the obvious choice.
In June 2022, after several months of discussion and planning, KCV awarded the clinic a grant to develop and program a prototype navigator during the 2022-2023 school year. The project is well underway, with clinic students researching various small business resources and creating forms. In the spring semester, my law lab course will use no-code applications to create the navigator. No-code tools are software development platforms that allow someone with no programming skills to build and deploy applications without writing a single line of code.
Navigators give new meaning to the phrase “access to justice.” A combination of no-code tools and legal expertise—from pro bono lawyers or law students—can be used to build simple technology that can save self-help litigants and others needing legal help to access that help inexpensively and efficiently. While curating the accessed content and updating navigators may be time-consuming, the benefits they can provide will contribute greatly to closing the justice gap.