On Oct. 10, the Legal Services Corp. announced which 30 legal organizations had scored a slice of $4.2 million in grant money it was offering to fund technology projects that increase low-income Americans' access to legal help.
The list of grant recipients showcased several trends — and a few unique proposals — in how legal aid groups are wielding technology to fill gaps in their services and otherwise increase access to the legal system.
"These technology projects improve the delivery of legal services and information to the millions of Americans who would otherwise have to navigate the legal system alone," Jim Sandman, LSC's president, said in a statement.
Here, Law360 spotlights three ways legal aid groups are planning to use technology to help people in need.
Helping Litigants Put Together — And Follow — Their Cases
Several legal aid groups plan to use the technology initiative grants to help people go through a court proceeding largely on their own. Among these groups, Philadelphia Legal Assistance Center earned $298,500 to build on an existing partnership with Upsolve.org, which offers an online system that guides people through a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
Currently, Upsolve helps petitioners fill out initial bankruptcy paperwork that's then reviewed by a lawyer. The new funds will help the company develop artificial intelligence to monitor dockets and then send email or text message alerts to remind users of court appointments and other key milestones in a case, according to Jonathan Pyle, PLA's contract performance officer. It will also help the company translate court filings into simpler language.
"I think Upsolve is very much a model for how the legal services model has to improve," said Pyle, noting that the system "really drives down the cost per case."
That lower cost can have significant real world impact, according to Pyle, who cited a testimonial from an Upsolve user who had contemplated suicide due to the stress of dealing with debt collectors and who couldn't afford a $2,000 attorney fee. That user secured a discharge of debt through Upsolve. While the grants will help those in the Philadelphia community through the legal aid group's relationship with Upsolve, the improvements will be accessible nationwide on the company's website and user portals.
The technology grants allow organizations three years to use the funds, but Pyle expects much of the improvements will be done within the next six months.
Making the Legal System More Understandable
Many grant winners said they planned to use the tech funds to make the legal system more understandable. For example, Colorado Legal Services scored $100,200 to create a video that will walk viewers through a state courthouse.
Legal Services Vermont, meanwhile, will use $152,940 to expand its online library of tutorials for self-represented litigants. Additional materials will include videos showing how to fill out court forms or initiate certain legal actions, as well as new tutorials on evictions cases and temporary restraining orders in domestic violence cases.
"This grant will support the critical work of Legal Services Vermont, whose website alone connects thousands of low-income Vermonters to the information they need when faced with civil legal challenges," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement applauding the award.
Similarly, Georgia Legal Services Program's $218,007 grant will be used to create interactive tutorials on landlord-tenant law.
Using multiple-choice questions, the tutorials will also check to make sure users are understanding the material.
"The focus will be on teaching self-represented tenants their rights and the steps for proceeding with a case, as well as training pro bono attorneys and legal aid staff," according to the group's summary of its project plans.
Broadening Access to the Deaf
Several years ago, the Washington state-based Northwest Justice Project secured a technology grant from LSC to add video conferencing capabilities so that one of the group's lawyers, trained in American Sign Language, could help the deaf and hard of hearing.
The project was a resounding success. But with 19 offices spread across the state, that lawyer — Kristi Cruz — has been in overwhelming demand, according to Susan Encherman, Northwest Justice Project's director of administration.
This year, the group was granted $51,330 to purchase tablets that will help connect office staff with a video sign language interpreter service. The software will ensure staff can help walk-ins and those who come in on an emergency basis. The system mirrors an existing procedure the group uses to help people who speak a different language, according to Encherman.
"We asked ourselves what could we do to make it equal for someone with a hearing disability," said Encherman.
Encherman estimates that the service will help around 100 hearing-impaired people a year, based on the group's current experience.
--Editing by Kelly Duncan.
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