Trump, the Legal Services Corporation and its Technology Initiatives Grants program

Heaven knows what a Trump presidency means for the world, let alone the US Legal Services Commission. At least, he is not entering office with the same personal animus against federally funded legal aid as did President Reagan. Whether that is enough to shield the corporation is to be seen. You would have to figure that there would be some nervousness around those within, and dependent upon, the Commission. What you can say as an outside observer is that, judging by its administration of the exemplary Technology grant programme, the Commission has done its best to prove its efficiency, political neutrality and imagination. The announcement this week of the latest round of technology initiative grants bear this out.

The LSC has granted a total of $4.2m to 34 projects in 21 states. This is pretty much the same amount as was given last year in a program that has been running since 2000 and has totted up a cumulative cost of $57m. Understandably perhaps, there would appear to be an element of spreading the money around and  getting the maximum support from each geographical area. Thus, a couple of congressmen – one Republican and one Democrat – were pulled in by the commission to commend its perspicacity in identifying their area of mid-Florida as a particularly sensible choice for a $139,200 grant- always best to score the easy goals.

The three major grants were to Ohio ($854,576), Oklahoma ($356,963) Idaho ($322,219).

The Idaho grant was partly:

to partner with the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction and the Illinois Tech Chicago-Kent College of Law to improve A2J (Access to Justice) Guided Interviews for the legal aid community. A2J Guided Interviews are interfaces that take complex legal information and present it in a straightforward way to self-represented litigants. This project will ensure that the catalog of more than 1,000 A2J Guided Interviews currently available to the legal aid community is easy to use, accurate, and up to date. A second … grant, will support Idaho Legal Aid Services’ work to make legal aid websites in the state more accessible for individuals facing legal issues. The project will make it easier to share and find important information about legal resources. It will also increase legal aid organizations’ online presence and direct more users to relevant legal information.

The Oklahoma grant was partly so that:

Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma will develop a statewide online triage program for all Oklahomans seeking civil legal services. The system will address the most common civil legal issues faced by low-income individuals and other vulnerable populations, but will also include legal resources for all Oklahomans. It will identify and recommend the best sources of assistance for an individual’s circumstances, based on variables such as type of legal problem, income, location, and language. Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma will use a second … grant, to partner with the Tulsa Family Safety Center to improve outcomes for victims of domestic violence. The project will improve workflow at the Center by consolidating the current series of oral and written interviews into one interview with an advocate.

And, finally, the largest grant by far, to Ohio State Legal Services (OSLSA), has a national tinge to a state grant:

to provide innovative services to clients and self-represented litigants. The Technology Initiative Grants program supports legal aid organizations like OSLSA to ensure that LawHelp Interactive continues to provide a robust and reliable platform for the delivery of legal services by state justice communities. The service helps users fill out complicated legal forms by merely answering a series of questions. LawHelp Interactive is currently used in more than forty states. A second … grant will allow OSLSA to create automated documents and court forms specially designed for legal services staff. The goal is to automate more work, freeing up staff to focus on higher level services. This project will also enable clients to assist in the completion of documents.

One of the impressive elements of the grant program as it now exists is that awards are made within priorities decided at a ‘technology summit’ in 2013, namely ‘(1) Document assembly for self-represented litigants; (2) better “triage”—that is, identification of the most appropriate form of service for clients in light of the totality of their circumstances; (3) mobile technologies; (4) remote service delivery; (5) expert systems and checklists; and (6) unbundled services.’  A further praiseworthy element is that successful grants have to report back with evaluations of the work undertaken on their grants. In addition, a yearly conference provides a forum for examining the work being undertaken.

So, for an outside observer, the TIG looks a pretty model program – in token of which the money is specifically voted by Congress. It has allowed the LSC to sidestep some of the ideological battles that have marred its past and proceed about its business with bipartisan backing. Whether President Trump will prove open to evidence-based reasoning and continue backing for the TIG program is yet to be divined: maybe he can surprise us all yet one more time. Let us hope so – and not only in relation to legal services, important though they be.

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