Access to Justice Gets a Tech Boost

30 December, 2016

Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson


The crisis of access to justice — when you’ve been harmed, how can you ensure that you can have your day in court? How could we have a system that is fair and accessible to all, regardless of their wealth?

World Justice Project found in 2013 that in the U.S., when poor people have been wronged, only around 19% will seek out a lawyer, the rest either ignoring the problem or looking for out-of-court solutions due to legal costs (in other western Democracies, the number of poor people who can get a lawyer is as high as 45%). The World Justice Project concluded the country’s civil justice system “lags behind in providing access to disadvantaged groups. Legal assistance is frequently expensive or unavailable, and the gap between rich and poor individuals in terms of both actual use of and satisfaction with the civil court system is significant.”

We’ve written before about barriers to the access of justice, such as mandatory arbitration agreements. In addition to pushing back against these trends, members of the legal community are also actively working within their own spheres to create greater accessibility.

One space where this is a real possibility is through technology. When inventors and entrepreneurs are people-centered, the technology they create can bring wind-power and fresh vegetables to the slums and education opportunities to students with disabilities. It can also bring a day in court to millions of Americans.

Innovation from the Desert

Southern Arizona is big. You can look on a map and think you understand — measure its height and width against your palm and see how it stacks up to its neighbors New Mexico and California, but it’s not as simple as lines on a paper. Out in the cholla and seguaro, the dirt roads develop cracks and holes. The mountains jut out in spikes and splinters, defying the normal geometry of plate tectonics. The roads wind around them, swooping down into arroyos — mere dry gullies until the summer monsoons bring flash floods that cut residents off from the next town over.

This is the landscape where Southern Arizona Legal Aid operates, finding clever new ways for low-income people to afford civil legal services. Like many similar organizations, SALA helps people in desperate situations — some face deportation or losing their home, or have suffered from unsafe housing conditions, fraud, predatory lending, and other injuries.

But in this vast rural area, the most difficult step came before a case was even open: simply getting to the legal aid office. This is where technology stepped in. The Legal Services Corporation, which gives out Technology Initiative Grants with the express purpose of increasing access to legal services for low-income people, has helped fund the creation of an easy and accessible video conferencing process. Now, without leaving the room, SALA staff can communicate with poor clients across the vast Sonoran Desert.

How can we bridge the gap?

It’s examples like this that caused the Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice to proclaim: “Technology can and must play a vital role in transforming service delivery so that all poor people in the United States with an essential civil legal need obtain some form of effective assistance.”

These ideas have spread beyond the typical cast of technophiles, making its way into the mindset of the premier professional association for attorneys, the American Bar Association. Former ABA president William C. Hubbard declared:

“We must open our minds to innovative approaches and to leveraging technology in order to identify new models to deliver legal services. Those who seek legal assistance expect us to deliver legal services differently. It is our duty to serve the public and it is our duty to deliver justice, not just to some, but to all.”

Some of these ways of “delivering legal services differently” include tech that can dramatically improve attorney efficiency. Since an attorney’s time is money, technology can indirectly improve access to justice by trimming down the time they need to do their work, making an attorney more affordable for low-income clients.

But some worry that the ABA and other legal leaders haven’t done enough to make this a reality. This is the main thrust of attorney and legal expert Mark Cohen, writing for Forbes this month. He charges that the ABA has “failed to promote ‘competence’” by not requiring greater technological savvy for attorneys. “The inability of the vast majority of American’s to afford counsel when they need it — often referred to as ‘the access to justice crisis’ — is the scourge of the profession and a threat to the rule of law,” writes Cohen. “The situation is all the more vexing because of the glut of lawyers and the availability to provide affordable legal access via new delivery models.”

Cohen continues:

“It will take more than lawyers alone to solve the access to justice crisis as well as other big challenges. Solutions will require the collaboration of lawyers and other experts in the delivery of legal services. The ABA must be far more inclusive in its approach to problem solving and recognize that technology can provide scalable solutions that will help society — and lawyers, too.”
This is part of our vision here in creating Filevine, which can increase attorney productivity by 67%. The technological future of law will be a win for everyone. As Cohen notes: “Imagine if 100 million new clients (who could pay for legal service but not at current prices) were to enter the marketplace — that would benefit lawyers, clients, and society.”