Illinois Legal Aid Online: the ‘central nervous system’ of legal services?

Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) is basking in praise this month. Just as the American Bar Association prepares for  its annual Chicago Techshow conference, its journal quotes a Legal Services Corporation official, David Bonebrake, as saying that the Chicago-based institution provides ‘the best legal aid website in the country’. (http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/illinois_legal_aid_online)

Close readers will recall that ILAO’s Teri Ross reported on a revamp of the site last year.

The ABA Journal’s praise looks justified. The site is clean and uncluttered: https://www.illinoislegalaid.org. There is plenty of information on its home page directing the user to a number of different routes. There is plenty of white space and a nicely subdued tone of blue used as the main contrast colour.

The site is aimed at various categories of user, rather different from the main domestic English advice website https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk. Its targets include those seeking advice and information, as does the Citizenss Advice site, but ILAO serves as a source of referral to the four legal aid providers in the state, as a resource for private lawyers providing pro bono services and a provider  of online assistance to litigants in person.

ILAO has been going for an impressive 16 years – well ahead of others in its use of technology in the legal services’ field. Chicago is the home of the ABA and, latterly, its Center for Innovation but this does not seem to have been the major reason. ILAO’s success is the product of early funding and long term commitment from the Chicago Bar Foundation and the  Lawyers Trust Fund of Illinois – two organisations which were early appreciators of the possibilities of technology. They worked with the Chicago-Kent School of Law, another early entrant in the field. ILAO has also been involved in a number of one-off technology grants from the Legal Services Corporation. The organisation began by sharing accommodation at Chicago-Kent but is now located in a downtown block on a floor shared with a legal services provider. Its budget has risen to $1.75m and it has a staff of 19.

ILAO has playa a national role as the kind of resource which the Legal Services Commission recommended at a ‘technology summit’ in 2015 should become national.

A Vision of an Integrated Service-Delivery System

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.
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.

The strategy for implementing this vision has five main components:

Creating in each state a unified “legal portal” which, by an automated triage process, directs persons needing legal assistance to the most appropriate form of assistance and guides self-represented litigants through the entire legal process.

Deploying sophisticated document assembly applications to support the creation of legal documents by service providers and by litigants themselves and linking the document creation process to the delivery of legal information and limited scope legal representation.

Taking advantage of mobile technologies to reach more persons more effectively.

Applying business process/analysis to all access-to-justice activities to make them as efficient as practicable.

Developing “expert systems” to assist lawyers and other services providers.

The site will identify where a user has a problem of the kind which will be accepted by a legal services agency and check geographical and financial eligibility. It will, if a referral is appropriate, send the information into the system’ of the agency to which a referral is made – though not, at this stage, with much substantive detail.

The national role of being a leader in the field continues as an express strategic objective of the organisation.

The core of ILAO’s site is information on specific topics – revised in the recent revamp to be more user rather than adviser friendly. Click on the topical issue of US citizenship, as many Trump-fearing immigrants must currently be doing, and you get clearly written general information; referral to more specialist topics and, as you would not on the citizens advice site, a number of the relevant forms to be self completed. There is plenty of opportunity for user feedback though relatively few people seem to avail themselves of the opportunity.

The multiple roles of the site, which also posts assistance to pro bono provision, underlies what its executive director, Lisa Colpoys, sees as the main objective in the future – ‘to become the central nervous system of legal aid in Illinois’. That is an interesting claim from an English perspective because it implies that the main source of referrals and the provider of advice of last resort (as lawyers might be tempted to see it) has a key role in pulling legal services together. English legal aid practitioners might well jibe at the logic of that claim because it flips the usual assumptions of power and resource.

Program  Director Teri Ross raised another interesting objective for the future – to begin to identify those who can benefit from self help and their most suitable route in all the circumstances – such as  the merit of the claim, its value and potential cost. That, of course, is close to the core value of what a lawyer should provide for their client. It makes a suitably ambitious goal for a nationally leading project. Attainment is some way off, though.

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