Could Virtual Aid Improve Court Access For The Lawyerless?

By Kevin Penton | October 6, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

With approximately half of all civil litigants walking into Massachusetts courtrooms without attorneys to provide counsel, a large percentage are potentially exposing themselves to negative legal outcomes as they contend with quotidian matters such as debt, divorces or rent disputes, a nonprofit’s recent study contends.

Massachusetts could help litigants deal with their cases by developing an online help center that could guide people through the basics of legal proceedings, assisting them as they deal with their cases without crossing the line and actually imparting legal advice, according to recommendations included in the study, released Thursday by the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.

The financial background of litigants is typically the impediment that prevents them from hiring attorneys, resulting in a system where two people facing the same claims could end up with a different ruling, simply because of their relative financial resources, according to the study by Massachusetts Appleseed, which works on finding solutions to access to justice issues.

Jake Hofstetter, Massachusetts Appleseed’s research and policy associate, told Law360 there are also people who don't qualify for receiving pro bono services from legal aid organizations because they are above the federal poverty line, but still don't have sufficient resources to hire their own attorneys.

Courts in Massachusetts already attempt to deal with the disparity with initiatives such as Court Service Centers — six locations where litigants can access legal information and guidance, according to the study. Legal aid organizations are allowed to run “lawyer for the day” programs in several locations. And some self-help information is also already included on websites for the state courts, according to Massachusetts Appleseed.

Yet the organization believes the state can do more, by providing guidance on court processes such as submitting evidence, making motions or filling out the correct forms for various proceedings, on a site it refers to as a “Virtual Court Service Center.”

Written and video how-to guidance could provide litigants with a road map of what to potentially expect and prepare for as their cases progress, according to the study.

“By developing a Virtual Court Service Center, Massachusetts has the potential to improve access to justice for the growing number of self-represented litigants in the legal system,” the report says.

“Without serious efforts to aid [self-represented litigants,] Massachusetts civil courts will become two-tiered systems where those who can afford an attorney or are lucky enough to find pro bono assistance can exercise their legal rights while those who self-represent struggle [to] receive fair judgment,” the report says.

Massachusetts Appleseed has partnered with the Massachusetts Trial Court since 2016 on developing recommendations for a self-help website for civil litigants, with Thursday’s report serving as the partnership’s result, according to the study.

Massachusetts Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey on Monday thanked Massachusetts Appleseed for working on the study.

"We look forward to moving the initiative forward as we implement our e-courts initiative," Carey said in a statement. "Virtual Court Service Centers will help all court users access our system to receive the help they need to handle their cases."

Several states — including California, Maryland, New York, Oregon and Utah — currently provide “extensive” self-help guidance on their court websites, according to Massachusetts Appleseed. Yet the organization believes the Bay State could go even further by developing a “comprehensive” virtual help center.

Deb Silva, Massachusetts Appleseed’s executive director, said she anticipates that Massachusetts courts will look to enact the study’s recommendations, depending on whether officials can get the financial backing.

“There’s definitely a strong interest in getting this done,” Silva said. “A lot will depend on outlining the resources.”

--Editing by Aaron Pelc.

Update: This article has been updated to include a comment from Massachusetts Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey.

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