Why you should care
Finding a cheap way to provide legal services — through a computer — could mean better justice for all.
Peter Calandra had lost his job at a department store and was worried about his child-support payments. He wanted to get them reduced “before I’m up to my eyeballs in debt,” he says. So recently he walked into the Family Court in Lower Manhattan — and instead of spending hours there like he usually would, the 32-year-old plunked himself down in front of a computer. From there, a prompt on the screen walked him through a series of questions. All told, the DIY program took only about 15 minutes to complete before producing a clean, legally acceptable request for support-payment reduction. The cherry on top: no lawyer.
Technology is playing a new role in making the crush of casework manageable and quietly revolutionizing America’s civil justice system. Sure, people still can’t tap an app to sue their landlord to get back a deposit or seek a restraining order against an abusive spouse. (Not yet, anyway.) But some states later this year will begin rolling out sites where documents once available only in hard copy can (finally) be viewed and filled out from the tiny screen of a smartphone — possibly saving millions of people from hours of dreaded courthouse waits.
So far, the tech-centric takeup by individual states has been uneven. New York, California, Texas and Illinois are in the lead, while in other states, local bar associations or judges have been slow to change. “It’s real dog’s breakfast,” says John Mayer, who writes software for the states and is executive director at the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction. And while broad figures on how successful these moves have been are hard to come by, one study of San Joaquin Valley, California, found significant savings for both the courts and litigants that used self-help services. Meanwhile, Manhattan Family Court’s program has cut processing times to 15 minutes, down from as much as four hours a few years ago. “We were overwhelmed by the volume,” says Diane Goulding, a court clerk specialist there. Justice Fern Fisher, who heads the New York program, expects an “exponential” growth in the use of the program once it becomes available on mobile devices later this year.
The complexity of cases and subtleties of evidence rules and legal definitions have until now left these matters to lawyers and judges.
The right to a lawyer has existed for criminal defendants for decades, dating back to the Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963. But in civil cases — the millions of cases each year involving disputes between private parties — money talks. Congress established the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in 1974 to provide aid to the poor, though its funding today has fallen about 25 percent below the original budget, after adjusting for inflation, while the number of poor people needing legal services has ballooned — up 27 percent since 2007. “We’re not able to serve the population in need of service,” says James Sandman, president of the LSC.
Of course, many litigants would still be better off with a lawyer. For many cases, a computer program won’t do the trick, and for others it’s a second-best solution. That’s why some access-to-justice advocates haven’t fully given up the idea of the right to an attorney for all. Still, most have accepted a more practical standard: that anyone should get some form of effective assistance — even if they can’t afford a human being with a law degree and a license to practice. “It’s on the radar all over the country,” says Glenn Rawdon, technology program counsel at the LSC.
It would seem like a simple initiative, given the steady advance of computer programs like TurboTax or TaxACT, which walk millions of otherwise frustrated, bleary-eyed taxpayers through the complexities of federal and state taxes. But the court system is far more daunting. There are 50 state legal regimes, each with dozens of different areas of civil law, and with jurisdictions down to the district or county level, each with its own set of procedures or acceptable forms. The complexity of cases, along with subtleties of things like rules for evidence and legal definitions, for example, have traditionally left these matters in the hands of lawyers and judges.
Yet for many people, paying for a lawyer isn’t an option, and self-represented litigants have been on a steady rise throughout the country since at least the 1980s, wherever it’s been measured. California took an early lead in 1997 when it started establishing self-help centers in the courts, staffed with lawyers and paralegals giving help where needed, though not legal advice.
These days, California’s budget has increasingly veered toward technology solutions, says Bonnie Hough, managing attorney at the California Administrative Office of the Courts. Its self-help site now gets 5 million visitors a year, including 30,000 divorce filings a month, and has expanded to include 4,000 pages of information. Sandman’s goal is to go further than that by creating a single portal in each state that guides users to the right program — and tells them if they really need a lawyer in the first place.