January 27, 2019

Explosion in apps includes promising ones to improve access to justice

In the era of the “app,” digital legal tools offer encouraging signs to narrow a justice gap that has plagued the United States in recent years, leaving nearly 9 out of 10 low-income Americans without services for civil legal needs.

A panel of experts and practitioners, including a Chicago-based researcher recognized last year with a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, agreed progress is being made. But at the ABA Midyear Meeting in Las Vegas on Jan 26, they quickly expressed caution on whether enough is being done, given the Legal Services Corporation reports that 86 percent of the civil legal problems of low-income Americans in the past year received inadequate or no legal help.

The group had a spirited, packed-house discussion on the implications of technological development on the practice of law and delivery of legal services. The session, “Maybe There’s an App for That: New Legal Technologies, Access to Justice, and the Changing Practice of Law,” was sponsored by the American Bar Foundation.

Rebecca Sandefur, an ABF faculty fellow and University of Illinois associate professor of sociology who has become akin to a “rock star” after the “genius” grant highlighted her work in the access-to-justice arena, noted there are 322 “tools” in the justice space. But Sandefur observed many of those tools “are designed in outdated ways … and will not fill that gap.”

She also discussed some new research posted late in January that showed, in her words, “Americans just don’t think of their justice problems in legal terms.” She writes in the new research: “When a system is broken, the solution is systemic reform. Focusing on existing programs that deliver legal services and on court cases will never provide a picture of all of the other civil justice activity that never makes it to the justice system — and that is the majority of civil justice activity.”

Katherine Alteneder, director of Self-Represented Litigation Network in Virginia, said the justice system was designed essentially for one user group – lawyers – rather than the range of other stakeholders, including clients. “We just can’t throw out one solution and hope it works,” she said.

Another panelist, Barbara Buckley, the executive director of the Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada, outlined how her nonprofit law firm is using technology for self-help centers, such as in family law, to try to meet needs. Buckley, a former speaker of the Nevada State Assembly, encouraged legislatures to expand statewide access-to-justice initiatives and reforms that works in one jurisdiction to accelerate the pace of change.

Georges Clement, co-founder of JustFix, a nonprofit in New York City that helps tenants with housing issues, outlined how his company leverages technology to help low-income people build well-documented cases and connect with community and legal advocates. A nonlawyer, he said his company follows a “build with, not for” approach that might benefit the legal profession in its push for change.

Daniel B. Rodriguez, who is the chair of the governing council of the ABA Center for Innovation and a longtime law professor and dean, suggested for now the “nudge” approach might be better than no approach. “There is much more to do,” Rodriguez acknowledged, summing up the consensus of the panel.