Bridging the Gap: A2J Tech and the US – #LSCITC Part 3

Coverage of two projects complete this series of articles on the Legal Services Corporation’s recent technology conference. They both focus on assistance for people with legal problems but without legal representation. One relates to the provision of dedicated advice and assistance terminals, ‘legal kiosks’, and the other on helping the unrepresented through the process of litigation with a ‘litigation passport’. The first comes from a project in Minnesota and the second Maryland. Both of these have their own websites which are worth consulting if you are interested in this area.

The Legal Kiosks of Minnesota

These are part of a wider outreach programme which was covered earlier in the LSC’s conference and which has its own website. The kiosks are intended to address the issue of the ‘digital divide’ or, as I would prefer it, the ‘digital gradient’. This is the project’s own description of itself: 

‘Legal kiosks are computers located across the state of Minnesota that provide access to legal aid services to individuals without access to wifi or technology. These Legal Kiosks are stationed in a variety of community locations offering the public the ability to apply for civil legal aid services, access legal resources, and, in some cases, attend online meetings and remote court hearings in privacy.

Anyone can use this kiosk! You can use it to find out if you have any legal needs, access information and services, or contact a legal aid provider. We can help you fill out forms, apply for services, or point you in the right direction.

The COVID-19 pandemic and public health emergency have moved the legal system virtual, creating a digital divide that has disproportionately impacted the communities served by Minnesota Legal Aid. Access to the legal system and a chance at justice is only available to those with the means and resources to use technology. To address this digital divide, the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition requested … funds to give communities access to civil justice by creating a statewide network of legal kiosks to be stationed in a variety of court, agency, non-profit, and other community locations.’

You can see a short Youtube video promoting the kiosks. This ends with an assertion that ‘this is going to be a game changer for legal aid’. Minnesota has large rural areas with major issues about access. The statistics for adults on lower income are not good. 43 per cent do not have home broadband; 41 per cent do not have a desktop computer; 24 per cent do not have a smart phone. Broadband can prove unreliable. Smartphones are not good in those circumstances for transferring documents. 

The project involves two models of kiosk – reflecting different use. Model A kiosks assist you to apply for legal aid and to consider your eligibility. They are located in public places like shopping malls. Model B kiosks are placed in private places within the range of organisations that are partners to the project. They allow zoom meetings, printing and scanning, more privacy and interaction. As described by the project, ‘The Model B Legal Kiosk is a Legal Aid Program-focused kiosk that serves as a virtual portal to the individual Legal Aid program managing the kiosk. Applicants and/or clients can be directed to Model B kiosks for tasks such as intake, meetings with their attorney, and appearing virtually as needed while represented by the Legal Aid Program. Model B kiosks are placed in locations with the ability to create a confidential space while the kiosk is in use.’

These kiosks were very much a response to the pandemic. This provided both the incentive for rapid action and the funds through federal alleviation provision. The project got $3.5m federal funding. It clearly involved a major co-ordinated effort by a range of organisations led by Minnesota’ s legal service providers.

Justice Passports

The Maryland legal passport project is focussed on helping litigants through the litigation process once it is underway. The passport is a ‘a free online tool that allows participants to scan and upload their documents, share those documents with legal service providers, set up timelines and reminders, learn about legal topics, and connect with legal aid organizations. Litigants can use the Passport as an app on their smartphone or at the website.’ Like the Minnesota project, it is also the result of a coalition where ‘ Civil Justice and the Maryland Judiciary, with A2J Tech, have partnered to create the Maryland Justice Passport‘.

The passport allows storage of all information about a user’s case which they can choose to disclose to different providers, thereby helping the process of referral. It also allows – and this seems to me one of the most interesting elements – the storage of key dates in an online diary which can prompt the user to take appropriate action. So this is support moving beyond the simple provision of advice and information to active assistance in the process of the case. 

This is another expression – and a first step to what I have dubbed Unbundling 2.0. ’We are talking about helping people through a process by, for example, providing the same type of case management support as we might expect as practitioners. Users should be able to get reminders of significant dates and actions they need to take by logging into systems that will provide this for them – as CitizenshipWorks does for immigration cases in  the US. This will help you as a user with pretty much the same tools as it will provide for a specialist practitioner. And that should go miles beyond simple document assembly. It involves setting out the milestones in a case and providing the options for the various outcomes. It really should be about transferring the skill of the practitioner into a form useable by all.’

Need for research

Both of these projects have exciting possibilities. And, indeed, some challenges – among them ensuring privacy. We desperately need to know how they work in practice and what lessons we can take from them. Let’s hope that we will get that because both address universal problems which every jurisdiction needs to find ways to solve. We need to get beyond throwing our hands up at the ‘digital divide’. After all, every ravine is a threat to foot walkers but an opportunity to bridge builders. And other cliches. 

 

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