Technology and Legal Services: inspiration from successful bids to the US Legal Services Corporation?

The results are in for the latest round of funding by the US Legal Services Corporation for technical initiative grants. This is the biggest and longest established A2J tech funding programme in the world. So, it may be worth looking at the grants awarded for inspiration elsewhere.

The grant programme is approved by the US Congress and, this year, totals $4.2m. It has been running since 2000 when the total was actually higher. It seems generally to be the equivalent of around 1 per cent of the LSC’s total budget. In total, grants for $65m have been given for around 700 projects. The overall context of the programme was set a ‘technology summit’ in 2013. This set the overall high level goal as ‘to explore the potential of technology to move the United States toward providing some form of effective assistance to 100% of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs’. More particularly, it set the following five targets: 

  1. 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 
  2. 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. 
  3. Taking advantage of mobile technologies to reach more persons more effectively. 
  4. Applying business process/analysis to all access-to-justice activities to make them as efficient as practicable.
  5. Developing “expert systems” to assist lawyers and other services providers.

Within this overall framework, the LSC invited applications in four categories:

‘1) Innovations and Enhancements, 

2) Replication and Adaptation, and 

3) Technology Improvement Projects … In addition to the application categories, the area of interest for 2019 is “Projects That Develop a Strong Foundation of Technologies for Self-Represented Litigants.” This area of interest seeks proposals to strengthen the foundation of resources and tools available for self-represented litigants and ensure that more cutting-edge innovations meet their promise.’ Technology grants can go only to projects whose main funding comes from the LSC – which is the major, but not sole, funder of civil legal aid in the US.

The LSC has to pay some heed to the equities of national distribution and the opportunity in hard pressed times to seek the express approval of local politicians. So, the 30 grantees are spread around the country and politicians of every stripe joined in their approval along the lines of South Carolina’s Representative James  ’I am pleased that South Carolina Legal Services will be receiving funding’.

These are my understanding of the categories into which the awards can be divided. Where a project is in more than one, I have tried to identify its main focus.

Online information (10)

A big grant ($283,089) to Alaska LSC ‘to create a web application, BeneFactor, to inform and assist individuals applying for social security disability benefits’; Atalanta Legal Aid Society in Georgia ($90,650) to improve its website and online intake for Spanish speakers; Legal Aid Chicago ($184,200) to improve online content.

Legal Aid of the Bluegrass (what a great name) ($176,966) to upgrade the legal information website.

Legal Services of Eastern Michigan ($180,838) for a mobile-friendly app to deal with housing.

Michigan Advocacy Program hit the big time with two grants ($114,300 and $177,500) to instal automated text capacity to the Michigan Legal Help website and to provide online guided interviews.

Central Minnesota Legal Services ($102,478) to upgrade its legal information website.

Community Legal Aid Services in Ohio ($162,500) ‘to develop better functionality for the state’s legal information website, www.ohiolegalhelp.org, and provide mobile access for users. Users will be able to create a personalized dashboard where they can save and retrieve assembled documents, articles, and other ongoing tasks. The new functionality will allow the system to send out text reminders to users about actions to take.’

Legal Services of Eastern Michigan ($180,838) to launch mobile-friendly housing app.

Northwest Justice Project in Washington ($51,330) to develop tablet-based services for those with hearing difficulties.

Technology Evaluation (6)

The following got grants: 

Prairie State Legal Services ($27,500)  in Illinois

Kentucky Legal Aid ($26,500)

Legal Aid of Western Missouri ($27,500)

Mississippi Center for Legal Services ($27,500)

Northeast New Jersey Legal Services Corporation ($27,500)

Neighbourhood Leal Services Program of Washington DC ($27,500)

Education (4)

Colorado Legal Services ($100,200) ‘to implement a virtual video or walk-through of going to a Colorado courthouse’.

Georgia Legal Services Program received a big grant ($218,007) ‘to build online, interactive tutorials on landlord-tenant law. The focus will be on teaching self-represented tenants their rights and the steps for proceeding with a case, as well as training pro bono attorneys and legal aid staff. The tutorials will require participants to answer multiple-choice questions to ensure understanding and to maximize effectiveness’.

South Carolina Legal Services ($155,940) to expand online courses on legal issues.

Legal Services Vermont ($152,940) to create more online content for litigants in person with tutorials on ‘high demand’ legal issues ‘including evictions cases and temporary restraining orders in domestic violence cases. The expanded library of online tutorials will feature a series of instructional videos, informing viewers how to fill out court forms or initiate certain legal actions.’

Online self-help (4)

American Samoa Legal Aid ($73,200) to improve its website, including interactive tools and improving accessibility.

Inland Counties Legal Services Inc in California ($97,464) for online tools for debt cases.

Legal  Advice and Referral Center ($62,290) for a self-help pilot for litigants in person.

Ohio State Legal Services got the largest single grant ($790,000) ‘to continue growing the capability and reliability of LawHelp Interactive (LHI), a free online resource for drafting legal forms and documents in over 40 states. LHI is a partnership with Pro Bono Net, a nonprofit that uses technology to increase access to justice’.

Client Intake (4)

Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota ($177,500) to improve client intake system.

Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services ($27,500) to improve intake.

North Penn Legal Services ($195,000) to develop an online intake and referral system.

Legal Aid of Wyoming ($105,000) to develop a triage system.

Data (1)

Legal Aid Society of San Diego ($90,000) ‘to deploy an enhanced data migration system for the Health Consumer Alliance (HCA) of California. This will allow for HCA’s seamless transmission of client health advocacy data to a new database and to HCA’s partners, including the state’s nine other LSC grantees’.

ODR (1)

’Philadelphia Legal Assistance Center will receive $298,500 to partner with Upsolve.org to develop artificial intelligence-enabled tools to help individuals filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. These tools will guide users throughout the bankruptcy process, translating court filings into plain language, setting appointment reminders, and monitoring court schedules for case activity. Users will be able to access these services through the national Upsolve.org platform.’

 

Image by William Iven from Pixabay

Leave a Reply