Passports, Barriers and Bridges

Last night, the team behind the Maryland Justice Passport covered in the previous post put up with some significant network connection difficulties and gave up an hour to discuss their project. The issues were the potential and the possible replicability of their project. Specifically, should we over here start demanding that courts in the UK develop something similar to assist self represented litigants? This may be as yet unresolved but plenty of issues came up along the way.

The first thing to note is the infectious enthusiasm of US advocates of A2J technology. That provides such a contrast with the position in England and Wales where legal aid has been battered by austerity cuts since 2010. Law centres are down to 42 over the country. Covid has stretched everyone to the limit. Civil legal aid practices have been largely wiped out by the removal of coverage for wide areas such as matrimonial cases. The US – albeit that civil legal aid is fractured between services funded by the Legal Services Corporation and elsewhere – has got more momentum behind the innovative use of technology.

The idea of the Maryland passport emanates from the state’s general commitment to assisting self-represented litigants. Despite volunteer help through organisations like Support through Court, England and Wales has nothing like the network of court-supported self-help centres, both digital and physical, which exist in the best US courts – for which California has long been a cheer leader. Even if we had had them, the physical decimation of our courts would make these much less accessible. Progressive US states like Maryland and Minnesota have produced ‘Guide and File’  resources which ask questions in simple language and then automatically produce completed court forms. Some are producing dynamic forms of assistance that help litigants through the court process: ‘Arizona state courts have AZPOINT to file a petition for a protective order. The Self-Help Guide to the California Courts is a website designed to help SRLs navigate their cases. It includes step-by-step guides for following procedures and helps with understanding options. Litigants can get information on legal topics, look up a court case, get help from the court (e.g., find self-help centers, forms, interpreters, disability access), start a court case, and work with an existing case.’

The Maryland passport is, in effect, a downloadable folder which can hold various pieces of information. The content can be generated by third parties, like workers in court self help centres, or by the user themselves. Users can give consent for others to access information in the passport. And one of their prime uses has been to ease the journey of litigants in person around the different organisations which might assist them. Judges or advisers can see where the user has been and what has been done so far. It eases processes like conflict checks. Consideration has been given to privacy. Two factor authentication is possible and the system will allow text message notifications only to tell the user that they have email rather than stating its content. 

The passport has potential, however, to be of more direct use. It now incorporates a calendar function which allows the diarisation of forthcoming events such as court hearings. This seems to be relatively rarely used at present but is something that surely has potential. The passport could be developed as form of case management system for self represented litigants so that modules covered the more standard types of case. That would take it in the direction of the sort of assisted case management provided by CitizenshipWorks in the specific field of immigration. And it would be an example of what I have previously called Unbundling 2.0 – not only advising a person on the law but also providing ways of actively guiding people through the resolution of their problems. One of the interesting things about the passport’s development is that its devisers have felt able to add features as they go – following a ‘progressive elaboration approach’. They have managed to keep funding coming from the judiciary. They are following a rather more responsive version of ‘build it and they will come’: it amounts to ‘build something and we will develop it as they come’.

The effectiveness of the passport is to be seen. The project started only in February 2020 and opened with a pilot in one court area. Only just over 600 have been issued to date and it is a moving target. ‘We treat it like a typical product and develop it,’ says Joseph Schieffer of A2J Tech who have designed it. But it does provide one way in which courts can show that they care about self represented litigants enough to help them through litigation. In England and Wales, such litigants in person have rapidly become more troublesome to the system.Self-help centres, as are widespread in the US; the suite of tools provided by the Civil Resolution Tribunal in British Columbia under the heading ‘Solution Explorer’; and Maryland’s passport are all examples of the courts taking direct responsibility for assisting litigants in person somewhat in contrast to what happens here.

The passport does, of course, require digital literacy and access: that will exclude some people but the team behind it have a good response: ‘We always knew that there was going to be a segment of the population who we couldn’t help. But we can help a good number of people including some of the younger ones.’

So, Maryland’s passport provides us with an example of a digital response to helping litigants in person; courts taking responsibility for them; and an idea with some potential. A good start. Let’s see how it develops and see if we should follow.

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