Report of The Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice

LSC TIG summit report
The Legal Service Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grant program held a summit in 2012-13 about the future of legal services & the use of tech to get there. They issued Report of The Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice, to summarize their findings and work.

The “Report of The Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice” focuses on ways to use technology to provide all Americans some form of effective assistance with essential civil legal needs. The report presents a number of concrete recommendations to broaden and improve civil legal assistance through an integrated service-delivery system that brings the knowledge and wisdom of legal experts to the public through computers and mobile devices. The national Technology Summit brought together more than 75 representatives of legal aid programs, courts, government, and business as well as technology experts, academics, and private practitioners convened at two sessions in 2012 and 2013. LSC hosted the summit, and formed a planning group to design it that included participants from LSC’s grantees, the American Bar Association, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, the National Center for State Courts, the New York State courts, the Self-Represented Litigation Network, and the U.S. Department of Justice’s Access to Justice Initiative.

Here are the components of the LSC TIG vision of what kind of technology we need to be implementing:

This section sets forth a detailed vision and implementation outline for each of the five main components. Many of the strategies will require funding and are therefore contingent on finding the resources to implement them. We have no current commitments to fund any of the strategies suggested. Securing financial support will be part of the hard work needed to make the vision a reality.

The key to this portal will be an integrated system of resources, rules, and recommendations through which users can be matched with available services.

1. Statewide Legal Portals

The Vision

Each state now has multiple websites providing information on the courts, legal services, and private bar resources. The variety of choices can be confusing for the user and wasteful of scarce resources when multiple entities are providing information on the same topics. The better approach would be a single, statewide mobile web access portal in each state to which a user will be directed no matter where he/she comes into the system. The portal will support computers, tablets, and smartphones.

When an access-to-justice portal is implemented:

  • Information will be available anywhere, any time to every person seeking assistance.
  • Assistance from a person—lawyer or otherwise—will be available anywhere, if resources are available.
  • The portal will use methods such as branching logic questions and gamification6 to generate information on the capabilities of an inquirer, which will be part of the referral logic.
  • The portal will generate information on the legal needs of persons within the state, aggregate it, and provide it regularly to all participating entities.

The key to this portal will be an integrated system of resources, rules, and recommendations through which users can be matched with available services. The site will apply branching logic to users’ responses to questions and direct them to the most appropriate resource, considering factors such as case complexity, litigant capacity, strength and representation of the opponent, the importance of the litigant’s stake in the case, and the availability of the resource (updated in real time).

All access-to-justice entities in a state (including legal aid entities, courts, the organized bar, interested law firms and lawyers, law schools, libraries, pro bono legal services support entities, and other interested community entities) will develop the portal and will receive appropriate referrals from it. If a referral proves inappropriate, the entity to which the referral was made may make a different referral. The confidentiality of information provided by an inquirer will be preserved.

Service options will include:

  • Link to a specific section of a website for substantive and procedural information and access to document assembly forms
  • Connection to a legal services, court, or library staff person for information and navigation assistance (including a personal assessment of the capability of the service requester)
  • Connection to a self-help center or legal services attorney
  • Connection to a lawyer providing unbundled services on a pro bono or compensated basis (if the client is able to pay)

If the inquirer is connected to a person, that person will have the capability to change the referral. Responses from a person will take the initial form of an email, text message, or live chat. Escalation can take the form of a phone call or video conference.

An essential function of the portal will be the accumulation of data on how cases progress and, based on outcome data, the relative efficacy of various service delivery mechanisms. The goal is to employ technology that is smart enough to refine referrals based on the data collected, but human review will be essential to the evaluation process.

It is unrealistic to propose that every referral be reviewed, but the system designers will build in a statistically valid system of review that will spot-check referrals and help to improve their efficacy. After the initial portal implementations are evaluated, the model will be modified as necessary, and the template will be provided for other states interested in replicating the process.

Implementation Plan

LSC will work with others to secure funding to develop portals in up to three pilot jurisdictions, selected competitively. The pilot portals will be designed for maximum potential reuse in other states. Although LSC currently requires its grantees to have a statewide website for each state, and although many court websites have good information for self-represented litigants, the portal will be a new site that (1) aggregates the resources already available, (2) delivers new resources to fill any gaps that exist, and (3) provides the new functionality envisioned by the triage and expert systems.

To compete for the pilot program, jurisdictions should demonstrate that the portal will be created and supported as a collaborative effort of the major access-to-justice entities within the state and that they are committed to sustaining funding for the portal after the grant.

2. Document Assembly

The Vision

Plain language forms will be produced through plain language interviews for all frequently used court and legal forms (e.g., a consumer letter). Users will answer questions regarding their legal matter, and the intelligent forms system will use the information to generate the appropriate form and display it for review. The forms will be translated into all locally appropriate languages (but produce English language forms for filing). The systems will employ “smart form” XML tagging7 to deliver information in the form for recording and reuse in court and other entity case management systems. The document assembly system will provide “just in time” legal information (such as the definition of legal terms used in the form, as questions in the interview are reached), links to fuller discussions of legal options and implications, and links to unbundled legal advice providers to enable users to obtain professional assistance with specific issues at affordable rates.

Documents in process will remain on the system for a limited time to allow users to complete them in multiple sessions. Completed documents may be e-filed and filing fees paid through the system using a credit card. Court orders and notices will be generated using the tagged information and the same document assembly process (augmented by court workflow systems). Document assembly/e-filing systems will deliver filed documents electronically to process servers for service.

Implementation Plan

Unlike some other parts of this plan, document assembly is a relatively mature process in use by many access-to-justice entities. The biggest challenge is not a technological one, but the lack of uniform court forms in most states. The access-to-justice entities in each state must make the development of uniform statewide forms a priority, but that undertaking is outside the scope of this report.

Document assembly technology can benefit from additional development. For example, there is still a need for XML tagging standards for the data elements used in “smart forms,” for compliance with or expansion of the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) data model for those data elements, and for the cooperation of the courts, legal services providers, and vendors to implement support for those data standards in document assembly, e-filing, case management, and other types of applications and products. These standards are essential so that the various data systems used by legal services providers and the courts can share information without the need to reenter it. Creating links from document assembly to limited scope legal assistance requires the cooperation of unbundled legal services providers and, in many states, state or local bar associations or other legal referral entities.

To support our vision, we encourage those funders that provide resources to implement document assembly within a jurisdiction to make that funding contingent on commitments to:

  • Implement the “full scope” document assembly vision described above
  • Create a collaborative structure involving at least legal services organizations and courts that will ensure the system is developed and used by all access-to-justice entities within the jurisdiction
  • Adopt court rules that will ensure universal acceptance of forms generated by the system by the courts within the jurisdiction
  • Obtain extensive input from court users and from staff with the most frequent interaction with users, and from access-to-justice providers, in developing interviews and forms

Document assembly funding should cover:

  • Technical support
  • Support for a full-time internal position to manage the development and deployment process and to promote use of the application by staff and clients/litigants
  • Resources for ongoing maintenance and support of document assembly applications, not just for their initial development and deployment

It should be possible to reuse interviews and forms developed in one state or jurisdiction by adapting them to the laws and requirements of other jurisdictions.

Much of the information needed to evaluate the effectiveness of a document assembly application should be built into the system itself—obtaining evaluative information from users and as a by-product of system operations, such as assessing the understandability of particular parts of an interview based on the likelihood that users change the information they enter, take longer than usual to complete an interview part, activate help functions, or seek in-person staff assistance.

Websites will be redesigned for easy access by, and interaction with, mobile devices by providing information in smaller, simplified sections that are readable on a smartphone screen.

3. Mobile Technologies

The Vision

Access-to-justice services will be location-independent and accessible using smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices. Because the US population is becoming accustomed to remote delivery of banking, shopping, information retrieval, and support services, access-to-justice service providers may also need to adopt remote service delivery approaches. Use of computers, tablets and, increasingly, smartphones is becoming the expected medium for accessing services of all kinds. Eighty-six percent of adults earning less than $30,000 per year own cell phones, and 43 percent own smartphones.8

Implementation Plan

Information websites will be redesigned for easy access by, and interaction with, mobile devices by providing information in smaller, simplified sections that are readable on a smartphone screen. The new statewide legal portal and other automated systems should automatically detect the nature of a querying device and deliver information in the format appropriate to the device.

Access-to-justice entities should record user communication preferences and use them for sending reminders or alerts (e.g., email or text message). They should take advantage of smartphone capabilities by developing applications such as:

  • A courthouse map application to find the right courtroom
  • Use of a QR code (which can be saved on a smartphone) to link to location-specific information, to access a user’s case and schedule information, or to add information to a user file when an access-to-justice professional has a client contact in the field
  • Credit card transaction payments for court services using mobile devices
  • Checklists of documents needed for interview or court appearance
  • Smartphone scanning for document submission (e.g., pay stub or tax return)
  • Video capability for court appearances, interviews, hearing preparation, and explanations of information
  • Automated translation capabilities
  • Linkage to court scheduling
  • Use of geo location to provide resources
  • Preventive information and tools

The Legal Services Corporation has already funded several mobile technology projects. It will assess existing projects and identify those that can be reused or replicated by other access-to-justice entities.

The implementation strategy for the vision should identify funding for three types of mobile technology projects and choose the projects competitively:

  • Redesign of websites for mobile access
  • Replication of successful current mobile projects
  • Development of new applications such as those listed above

Once funding is obtained, LSC will negotiate one (or a few) national support contract(s) for mobile technology services to redesign websites and to develop mobile applications and mobile web applications for the specific jurisdictions selected in the competition. Support contracts should be awarded to jurisdictions based on the comprehensiveness of applications, including cross-entity collaboration. Each contract should be negotiated so that any access-to-justice entity that does not qualify through the competition can still procure services under its rates, terms, and conditions.

Individuals and small organizations now have the resources and capability to develop sophisticated mobile applications. “Hackathons” and other “crowdsourcing” means should be used to stimulate creativity and individual initiative in developing useful mobile apps for access-to-justice purposes. For instance, a state could challenge students to develop courthouse map apps for every courthouse in the state.

To ensure that poor people do not miss important, time-sensitive information provided by mobile applications, the initiative should undertake a campaign to convince telecommunications carriers to exclude specified access-to-justice addresses from the computation of chargeable usage counts— both minutes and data.

4. Business Process Analysis

The Vision

Business process analysis involves the disciplined “mapping” of how a task or function is performed, using standard conventions for depicting different aspects of the process. The process is often led by an outside expert in the use of the analysis, but it engages enough members of the organization to ensure a complete understanding of how the task or function is performed at all levels of the organization.

Application of business process analysis enables the participants to:

  • Better understand the work they do in specific case types
  • Simplify and improve their own processes and improve coordination with processes of other relevant entities
  • Identify new processes that can improve case handling and provide additional capabilities
  • Assign appropriate tasks to clients/litigants and to staff other than lawyers
  • Apply the best available technology to substitute for or augment the work of staff and lawyers
  • Increase understanding of, engagement with, and adoption of best practices and technology through the analysis process itself, which is inherently collaborative across staff and stakeholders
  • Reduce costs, handle more cases, and meet the needs of more clients/litigants by ensuring that each case is handled efficiently

When the business process analysis is conducted with participants from multiple entities (such as courts, legal services providers, private lawyers, libraries, etc.), the benefits expand to include:

  • Analyzing the optimal roles that each entity can perform in providing access-to-justice services (in particular, identifying where and how private lawyers can make the best contribution on both volunteer and fee-generating models and how to create incentives for the increased participation of the private bar)
  • Maximizing the systemic impact of process improvements, rather than confining the improvements to a single entity
  • Minimizing the duplication of effort across entities
  • Expanding provider knowledge of others’ processes

Process analysis can be conducted on a statewide basis to maximize the return on the participants’ involvement. For instance, all of the legal services providers within a state could analyze the process for a particular case type, because the laws governing the process are the same (although how cases are handled by the courts may vary from county to county).

The purpose of business process analysis is not to identify one “best way” for handling a type of case. Rather, it provides a method by which individual programs, jurisdictions, and states can identify the process that will best meet the needs of the stakeholders in that place and time, given the existing legal and organizational structures and resources available. Knowledge about process, represented as process map templates in standard formats, can be shared across the access-to-justice community. It takes less time to modify an existing map to reflect local practices than to create one from scratch. Reusability can be maximized by:

  • Using a single technical standard, such as Business Process Modeling Language, for documenting business process analyses
  • Documenting the legal and organizational context for each analysis
  • Recording the identities and contact information of the authors of such analyses to facilitate reuse of expertise

Implementation Plan

Implementation starts with a pilot project or projects: States will be invited to apply to create process map templates in several of the most common areas of poverty law practice. Applicants must commit to implementing and evaluating these business process results.

We contemplate that expert services will be provided to successful applicants pro bono by consulting firms, law firms, or legal services providers that have already gone through the process and learned its techniques and nomenclature. The legal services community will develop a cadre of expert support available at little or no cost to each program. These experts will not only examine existing practices but also endeavor to identify new capabilities that would benefit the systems.

The expectation is that the pilot projects will clearly demonstrate the benefits of business process analysis, both with increased access and a positive return on investment, so that other states join in these efforts. The National Center for State Courts is already working with state court systems and individual courts to conduct similar analyses. The leaders of the initiative will strive to encourage collaborative process analysis efforts at the state and local level.

LSC will create a website to collect completed process maps and to organize them for review by other entities beginning their analysis of a process.

5. Expert Systems and Intelligent Checklists

The Vision

Expert systems use information provided by a client to create personalized legal information tailored for her or him or the advocate/assistant. Such systems can be envisioned for a wide variety of topics, including benefits eligibility, identification of necessary forms and procedures, alternative approaches to problem solutions, and preventive law.

Intelligent checklists guide clients and advocates through the steps in processes, such as initiating or responding to court actions and dealing with government agencies.

Implementation Plan

The strategy to achieve the vision should include the development of a generic tool or tools that use the alternative types of logic needed for effective expert systems and checklists.

As access-to-justice entities conduct business process analyses for specific case types in their jurisdictions, they may identify a specific expert system or intelligent checklist application that would help deploy a revised business model for providing services. They could seek help for identifying existing tools experts capable of developing an application appropriate for their needs and funding for pilot efforts that could then, if successful, be publicized and reused elsewhere. Development of high-level expert systems will be governed by a state’s rules governing the practice of law.

6 Computer games use various techniques such as competition and rewards to keep users engaged. Similar tactics are being introduced into other software and websites to encourage users to complete the tasks and thus maximize their learning. This technique is called “gamification.”

7Data “tags” are standardized notations identifying the nature of the data in a particular data field so that the data can be exchanged among different computer systems—e.g., so that information concerning “apples” in one application can be placed into the location for “apple” information in another application.

8As of May 2013, according to Pew Internet & American Life Project,


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