How One State Is Using Automated Forms To Boost Justice

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The New York state court system has created several document automation programs that make it easier for self-represented litigants to create legally acceptable court documents, demonstrating how simple technology can be used to close the access-to-justice gap.

Sun Kim, associate counsel of the New York State Unified Court System's division of technology, said during a virtual event Wednesday that over the last 15 years, the Empire State's court system had introduced more than 20 do-it-yourself form programs, allowing pro se litigants, victim advocates and attorneys to answer questions online that are used to generate court documents.

The state court system has DIY forms for all of its civil courts that can be accessed on the free website LawHelp Interactive, run by the nonprofit Pro Bono Net, Kim said. LawHelp Interactive uses document assembly software HotDocs and A2J Author to generate the forms.

"Accessing the courts is incredibly intimidating," she said. "Something like a DIY program … [helps] a person feel empowered to actually do this themselves."

The webinar was one of the educational sessions offered during the New York state court system's two-day technology conference. The session provided an overview of how the state court system is using automated documents to make courts more accessible for residents and close the justice gap.

New York is not the only state that is offering automated court document services to residents. According to LawHelp Interactive's website, automated court document services are available in more than 30 states, including Texas, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

In New York, residents who don't have an attorney can use DIY or automated court forms for uncontested divorces, custody or visitation modifications, guardianships, name changes, consumer debt, foreclosures and evictions, according to the state court system's website.

Lisa Smith, panelist and chief counsel of gender and family violence policy and planning at the state Office of Court Administration, said the New York state court system also had a family offense petition program that allowed trained victim advocates to help domestic violence survivors create automated court documents needed for an order of protection.

Smith noted that one benefit of the program is that it allowed domestic violence survivors to get an order of protection without having to travel to a courthouse.

"It's one thing for people who are near mass transit to get themselves to a family court, but in rural New York, and that's a lot of the 62 counties, family courts can be a one-hour car ride away from the victim's residence, and that doesn't even take into account the number of victims who don't have access to a car," she said. "So transportation was always an issue and, obviously, was keeping victims who needed orders of protection from getting them."

Jessica Frank, panelist and A2J Author project manager at the legal research nonprofit Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction, said that in the last three years, from 2020 to 2022, five DIY forms helped nearly half a million New Yorkers.

Some argue that the answer to closing the justice gap is more lawyers, but many people can handle their own cases and only need help with forms, Frank added.

"A real-life, in-person lawyer isn't always the best solution," she said. "Lawyers are expensive, so even if we as a country had the political will to publicly fund a free or low-cost lawyer for everyone's legal issue, that's an awfully big if, I still don't think that a lawyer's the best option in every case."

--Editing by Karin Roberts.

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