Technology: not the complete solution but an important part of it

Jim Sandman, President of the US Legal Services Corporation, could not exist in England and Wales. Obviously, there is a distinction between the office and the man. Mr Sandman is personally more than welcome to visit any time he wishes. The point is that we have no equivalent of the Legal Services Corporation as a Quasi-Autonomous Non-Government Organisation or Quango. These were once popular – and, for a time, we had our own Legal Services Commission loosely based on the corporation. But, our commission is no more. It went in the same legislation that brought in our legal aid cuts and, with it, departed the only body that might credibly have led – like Mr Sandman and his corporation – a concerted drive toward technical innovation in access to justice.

To an outsider, Mr Sandman presents a model of what we have lost. He must be pretty close to the central casting model for the head of a body like the LSC which has proved pretty politically adept at survival over a number of decades. President Reagan vowed to kill it. And President Trump is no fan. But, Mr Sandman, with a background as managing partner in one of America’s biggest law firms (Arnold and Porter which has an office in London) followed by three years as general counsel for the District of Columbia schools, has proved a solid foil to all hostility. His commercial background and contacts; shrewd emphasis on pro bono and assistance to veterans; and an unthreatening demeanour that both shields and promotes the undoubtedly solid work of the LSC grantees in seeking to deliver legal aid programmes to households at 125 per cent of the federal poverty guideline has seen the corporation through the difficult times since President Obama moved on.

Support for technology has been one of the consistent threads of Mr Sandman’s whole time in office. Congress has given the corporation money for technical innovation grants (TIG) since 2000. The money currently amounts to roughly one per cent of the LSC’s total budget – $4m a year. Mr Sandman openly admits that ‘I knew nothing about TIG before I came to LSC. But I quickly came to realise that it was a distinctive asset for the corporation. Big law firms have more resources and have always been ahead on document management programmes but legal aid has led on document assembly applications, particularly in relation to litigation’.

There had been a first summit on technical innovation in 1999 but Mr Sandman led the convening of  a two-part national summit in 2012 and 2013. The summit drafted a list of strategic goals that played to one of LSC’s strengths as a funder rather than a provider: ‘the LSC does have a convening ability.’ It also proved very good at marshalling support and the priorities were, for example, adopted by the conference of chief justices. They have shaped the grants made under the programme and ‘gave us the opportunity to show Congress that we are good at business – that we reflect a healthy pragmatism’. The pragmatism is evident: the announcement of each grant is traditionally accompanied by a supporting quote from local Democrat or Republican politicians only too happy – whatever their contrasting politics – to commend the recognition of the particular needs of their state.

The fundamental vision of the summit was for an ‘integrated service-delivery system’ where ‘technology [plays] a vital role in transforming service delivery’. And the first priority was to create ‘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’. This was a proposal to advance the state-wide websites on which the Ford Foundation had previously sought to identify best practice. These had revealed opportunities but were a bit variable. Alaska and Hawaii were chosen as pilots: ‘We chose them because we can bring everyone together’ – reflecting their particular geography. ‘We are getting there. It is not easy. It will be work in progress for some time’.

Mr Sandman did not get to where he is without diplomatic skills – he is only too willing to agree that the US ‘can be insular. I wish we were more open to experience abroad’. The Corporation could also do more evaluation of its projects: ‘We have to use grant money to evaluate. We would like to raise private money to do that’. And, overall, he takes a moderate position. ’Technology,’ he says, ‘is not the complete solution but it is an important part of the solution’. Without an equivalent either as a person or a corporation, who or what could lead a comparable process of exploring the use of technology in access to justice for us? 

 

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