Most people lack any direct knowledge of court processes and are at a loss as to how to navigate the system. Yet millions of people find themselves in court without the means to hire a lawyer, facing extremely stressful situations involving the potential loss of property, money or even their children. Studies indicate that as much as 80% of the civil legal needs of low-income people go unmet. The societal costs of failing to address these problems include increased homelessness, more families being broken apart and, in domestic violence cases, greater risk of injury or death.
Nationwide, courts are working to address this situation by making themselves more accessible to the public, in part by offering online tools for self-help. One area of focus is court forms, which are often required but can be baffling to the uninitiated. Pro Bono Net, a nonprofit that works to increase access to justice, leads and manages LawHelp Interactive, a national online document assembly system that helps those without lawyers easily and correctly fill out court forms and other legal documents.
Pro Bono Net and the New York State Courts will present a case study of New York’s statewide adoption of LawHelp Interactive in 2009, as well as information on similar projects in other states. The New York project, which was launched in July 2009 with three online forms, is meant to help the nearly 2 million people who appear without lawyers in New York State Courts each year. In addition to the impact on the lives of this group, the influx of unrepresented litigants puts strains on overstretched court staff, reducing efficiency and creating frustration for clerks and judges.
The panel will discuss how the New York State Courts made the decision to launch LawHelp Interactive, describe at a high level how it works and share results to date. As with most LawHelp Interactive implementations, the New York project was a result of collaboration between the State Court and local legal aid organizations, and the panel will include discussion of how the collaboration between government and nonprofits was successfully managed, and the larger benefits of such collaborations.
Pro Bono Net staff will also describe other LawHelp Interactive implementations around the country and will share lessons learned that will be of use to others considering technology-enabled do-it-yourself programs, both within the courts and in other contexts. In 2008, more than 111,000 legal documents in 26 states were generated using LawHelp Interactive, and usage continues to grow as more courts around the country adopt the system. Common uses of LawHelp Interactive include: child support and custody documents, requests for orders of protection for victims of domestic violence, responses to creditors and divorce forms.
Kate joined Pro Bono Net in August 2006 and coordinates projects related to automated document assembly as the NPADO Project Coordinator. Kate earned a BS in Mathematics and Computer Science from North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota. After graduating in 2002, she became an Americorps*VISTA for Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) in Helena, Montana and worked on Montana LawHelp.org and Montana ProBono.net. After her year of service, she transitioned to MLSA’s Technology Project Coordinator and her role expanded to include working on document assembly, video conferencing, and LiveHelp. She lives in Baltimore.
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