US conference highlights innovative uses of technology in enabling access to justice
The US Legal Services Corporation
(LSC) held its annual Innovations in Technology Conference from 12 to 20 January 2022. The conference began as an internal forum for discussion of those involved in the LSC’s Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) Program, which opened in 2000, but has since broadened to provide an overview of developments in the US and elsewhere, with particularly good participation from Canada and Australia. It was originally supposed to take place in Phoenix but in the end was held virtually because of COVID-19. The upside to this was increased attendance: there were 900 registered delegates.
The LSC is the conduit of US federal funding to 132 separate and largely state-based civil legal aid providers. These must comply with conditions on grants set over a number of years by sometimes hostile administrations (such as restricting campaigning or acting for non-citizens). Despite opposition from President Trump (who called for it to be completely defunded), the LSC has managed to keep sufficient bipartisan support in Congress to keep going. Its appropriation for the fiscal year 2021 was $465m (£343m), in addition to which there were extra funds for disaster relief and to help with COVID-19 disruption. Civil legal services in the US are funded at much lower rates per capita than the UK jurisdictions, but the funding is concentrated largely in services employing salaried staff, so it can have a more concentrated effect.
Congress allocates an additional sum – which usually amounts to about one per cent of the total budget – for the LSC to dispense as TIG grants
. These are intended to encourage grantees to ‘use technology in innovative ways’ to deliver services and to ‘[d]evelop, test, and replicate innovative strategies that can enable grantees and state justice communities to improve clients’ access to high-quality legal assistance through an integrated and well-managed technology system’.
On 17 November 2021, the LSC announced the recipients
of its current funding round. It is clear from the list that care has been taken to spread the money around. Politicians of all stripes queued up to express their satisfaction at the money coming to their states, but among what might be seen as pork-barrelling are some seriously substantial projects. Hawaii got further funding towards its ambitious Legal Navigator project, which is planned as a portal that will use AI to help refer users to appropriate assistance. The big projects are balanced by those of a more bread-and-butter nature. Kansas, for example, got backing for a ‘text-based communication system to assist domestic violence survivors by enabling parents who are under court restrictions to securely communicate parenting time exchanges’.
While the Innovations in Technology Conference remains a showcase for the TIG grantees of the moment, it has also developed much further than that to become the best place in the world to find out what is happening in the innovative use of technology to enable access to justice. The May 2022 issue of Legal Action will contain a discussion of this year’s main content.