Changes in Delivery: Technology and Self-Help Initiatives

In addition to changes in the funding landscape, there have been numerous modifications in the legal services delivery system over the last two decades. Faced with severely limited resources, legal services programs have adopted new technologies and strategies that have allowed them to provide limited legal assistance to a larger number of people. As a result,low-income persons have access to information about legal rights and responsibilities and about the options and services available to solve their legal problems, protect their legal rights, and promote their legal interests.

LSC began a new grant program, Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) in 2000 and funded more than 708 projects totaling more than $63 million. Technological innovation in virtually all states has led to the creation of websites that offer community legal education information,pro se legal assistance, and other information about the courts and social services. Most legal aid programs now have websites, numbering more than 300 nationwide.

All states have a statewide website, most of which also contain information useful both to advocates and clients. Most of these statewide web sites were made possible by the Technology Initiative Grants program of LSC. All of these state sites can be accessed through www.lawhelp.org. Half of the sites are hosted on one platform operated by ProBono Net (www.probono.net). Dozens of national sites provide substantive legal information to advocates; other national sites support delivery, management, and technology functions. Many program, statewide, and national websites are using cutting edge software and offering extensive functionality. Projects in many states use kiosks with touch-screen computers that allow clients to produce court-ready pleadings and access to other services, such as help with filing for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Videoconferencing is being used in Montana and other states to connect clients in remote locations with local courthouses and legal services attorneys.

Finally, increasing numbers of legal aid programs across the country, in partnership with the courts and legal community, are using document assembly applications, most notably HotDocs and Access to Justice Author (A2J Author) to expand and make more efficient the provision of legal services to clients. These projects generally focus on the use of document assembly for pro se resources used by the public and automated documents used by legal aid staff to more efficiently represent their clients. Many of these projects nationally are coordinated through Law Help Interactive, which is a project of Pro BonoNet.

A2J Author uses HotDocs Online software to assist self-represented litigants in a web mediated process to assess eligibility, gather pertinent information to prepare a set of simple court forms, and then deliver those forms ready to be signed and filed. A2J Author is equipped with “just in time” help tools, including the ability to speak each word of the interview to the user in English or Spanish. The user can be directed to other websites to obtain explanations of technical terms.

In addition, there has been a rapid expansion of efforts by courts, legal aid providers, and bar associations to help people who are attempting to represent themselves in courts. Civil legal aid programs are devoting substantial time and resources to address the issue of assistance to pro se litigants. Many legal aid programs throughout the country operate self-help programs independently or in conjunction with courts. Some programs provide only access to information about the law, legal rights, and the legal process in written form,on the internet, on videotape, through seminars, or through in-person assistance. Other programs actually provide individualized legal advice and also often provide legal assistance in drafting documents and advice about how to pursue cases. Often, programs provide both printed and internet-accessible forms for use by persons without legal training, and also may provide assistance in completing the forms.

A critical part of expanding access has focused on a range of limited legal assistance initiatives to provide less than extended representation to clients who either do not need such extended representation in order to solve their legal problems or live in areas without direct access to lawyers or entities available to provide extended representation.

Many legal aid programs now operate legal hotlines, which enable low-income persons who believe they have a legal problem to speak by telephone to a skilled attorney or paralegal and receive advice and brief service. Legal hotlines may provide answers to clients’ legal questions, analysis of clients’ legal problems, and advice on solving those problems so that the client can resolve the problem with the information from phone consultation. Hotlines may also perform brief services when those are likely to solve the problem and make referrals if further legal assistance is necessary. Hotlines now operate in over 92 programs in 45 states,Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Some hotlines focus on particular client groups,such as the elderly. Others serve the low-income population in general. Finally, more anymore states have a central phone number (or several regional phone numbers) that clients can call to be referred to the appropriate program or to obtain brief advice about their legal problems.