The US Legal Services Corporation (LSC) has announced a partnership with Microsoft and ProBonoNet which is probably equal parts technology and politics. It has selected, after a competitive application process, Trump-stronghold Alaska and Clinton-voting Hawaii as the two states in which it will trial a ‘Microsoft portal project’, a statewide access to justice portal that will be central point for referral and intake by legal aid providers. It is, said LSC President Jim Sandman at its launch, ‘an extraordinary example of corporate philanthropy […] a major commitment to access to justice and a vote of confidence in the legal aid community’. All of which is handy at a time when the LSC is in President Trump’s sights for zero funding.
Brad Smith, the chief executive and chief legal officer of Microsoft, identified five elements in the project where technology can be deployed. It has been helping with scoping of the project over the last year and considers that it can use:
- the system’s knowledge of the location of users;
- natural language processing to help identify the precise problem;
- integration of machine learning so that the system can improve service by identifying what users found the most helpful
- incorporation of the latest thinking in inclusive design; and
- identification of the answers that users found most helpful and, therefore, and making this available to others.
The project is firmly within the goal that the LSC has set for itself of ensuring that there are state-wide portals of this kind for every state and that everyone eligible for its services can receive some level of help. It certainly should mean that there is better referral to geographic or subject restricted projects is easier and that the referral process (which can take place online, including the exchange of written information) is much simplified. Mark O’Brien, chief executive of ProBonoNet, made the point at the launch that the project was not only about technology. The successful bids had brought together a wide range of groups concerned with access to justice which was valuable in itself. Indeed, the Chief Justice of Hawaii was present at the launch to show its judiciary’s backing.
Microsoft’s commitment is to provide technical support and project management – at least to an estimated value of at least a million dollars. Jim Sandman was at pains to say they ‘were in big time’ and clearly this will be handy both for the project and the Corporation as it approaches difficult times with the President. For the time being, the emphasis seems to be more on intake and referral than self-help through the website – making the sites ratter different from MyLawBC, an element of Illinois Legal Aid Online or, indeed, the late and lamented Rechtwijzer. There is no doubt, however, that this is how the project could develop and, if it does, this would be a particularly useful model not only within the United States but potentially globally. Glenn Rawdon, program counsel at the LSC, confirmed that this was very much in their minds, ‘We want to build this in a way which other providers can integrate self help material for example in in family law, bankruptcy, family law and, a particular concern of the Corporation, tools for veterans’.