The Document Line Assembly Project: breeding lilacs out of the dead land

The coronavirus epidemic is precipitating some positive responses in the access to justice community around the world. Among them is the Document Assembly Line Project, a doubly innovative development in Massachusetts. It is using a novel collaborative approach to provide assistance for litigants in person (‘self represented litigants’) to file court forms electronically while courts are closed due to the current crisis. If successful, those involved hope it will be continued and, indeed, developed further.

The idea is that a mobile-friendly website will guide users to input the relevant information necessary to populate a court form. They will be taken though a guided interview rather than presented with a simple fillable pdf. Interestingly, the court is, thus, allowing external organisations into framing the process of going online. 

The project is being run by Boston’s Suffolk University‘s Law School’s Legal Innovation and Technology Lab and co-ordinated by David Colarusso its Director. It is a joint project with the wider network of the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission. The Lab is into collaboration and is already working, for example, with Stanford University in its ‘Learned Hands’ project. David Colarusso, whose interesting background has included science teaching as well as  lawyering, has taken a similarly collaborative approach to this project. There has been an open invitation to participate: ‘All you have to do to become part of the team is join the A2J Slack, add yourself to the #assembly-line channel, and introduce yourself. Once you’re there, we’ll help find something for you to do.’ Specifically identified are needs for those who are legal professionals, paraprofessionals or students; those with experience with docassemble, python or experienced UX/UI designers. 

The project is using a ‘scrum’ style approach with forward momentum and an iterative methodology. The invitation is still open: you can still join. As of yesterday, there were 67 people in total on the Slack channel, most in the US but some from elsewhere – there is one attorney from South Africa. ‘We are keeping up daily meetings during work days at 12.30 eastern time. These are mainly ‘stand up’ meetings, an opportunity for people to check in and raise any problems’. There is core group of around 12 that includes Quinten Steenhuis who developed an eviction project at Greater Boston Legal Services before recently joining Suffolk. 

Docassemble describes itself as ‘a free, open-source expert system for guided interviews and document assembly. It provides a web site that conducts interviews with users. Based on the information gathered, the interviews can present users with documents in PDF, RTF, or DOCX format, which users can download or e-mail.’ It is effectively a DIY document assembly programme.’ Docassemble is widely used by US legal services organisations and was founded by Jonathan Pyle of Philadelphia Legal Assistance. It would be interesting to look at the potential use of this software, or something similar, in the UK.

David Colarusso says that the software allows the project to provide more context than the standard court forms and to ask questions in a slightly different way.’ This is more likely to be apparent as the project develops rather than in its initial iterations: ‘We are looking for now to build a skateboard, not yet a Ferrari’. Docassemble allows value to be added by standard elements of its programme. For example, it includes a screen reader and it can suggest the court local to your address. The project is being run from lab servers at Suffolk. ‘We are still looking for exact language of relationship with court,’ says David Colarusso. ‘But the courts have agreed to accept what we will send’. Initial areas are likely to guardianship, domestic violence and housing matters. There will be opportunities to allow online chat assistance in completing the interview. Forms can be filed direct from the website and received by the court which will then process them in the usual way.

The courts will allow the project to use standard forms which it will feed into the docassemble software to generate easy to use questionnaires. The results can then be submitted electronically. Massachusetts’ courts have only limited e-filing at present so this extension represents a major extension. The content can be translated into nine languages used in Massachusetts through the court’s translation facilities.

The ultimate object is to create a replicable process – hence, ‘assembly line’ – first for Massachusetts and then with ambition to go wider. The immediate aim, says David Colarusso, is to have a minimum viable product ready for Massachusetts some time this week or next. His enthusiasm has been material to getting this project going: ’It has been a marvel to see how generous people have been with their time and how a number of highly competent people around the world can come together to make something really powerful and helpful. I am just amazed at what can be achieved when people come together. It is great opportunity to put our heads down and do something which will be valuable. Which is why people should volunteer. Just come and say “hi” at the slack channel.’

So, here is a project born of the Coronavirus catastrophe which is innovative both in its substance and its process – using technology for both. In the flowery language of a poet, you might say that it is a good demonstration of lilacs bering bred out of the dead land.

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