Tech lessons
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Marc Bloomfield
Description: Laptop computer (Hasan Albari_ Pexels)
Roger Smith reports back from Innovations in Technology, the best access to justice/technology conference in the world.
January is traditionally the time that the US Legal Services Corporation (LSC) holds its annual Innovations in Technology conference. I have been attending over the past decade on a pretty regular basis (and even sometimes at my own expense). Over this period, it has developed from a smallish meeting of 80 or so with a high preponderance of technical nerds (one year, a good proportion of the delegates looked like robots and wore Google glasses) to a major gathering whose attendees are more concerned with the use of technology than the detail of how it works. This year, it was virtual and attendance was up to around 900.
The format of the conference includes: the odd plenary; parallel streams; a variety of ‘affinity’ groups for those with a similar interest; meetings of groups like the wonderful Self-Represented Litigation Network; other networking opportunities; and short tech talks. The last used to be a wonderful blood sport where presenters struggled to keep pace with automatically advancing slides in rigorously timed three-minute sessions (Alas, the organisers have now introduced training and practice sessions, and for the past few years the timing has been impeccable.)
Behind the one-off nature of the conference is a supporting structure. The LSC is responsible for the federal funding of US civil legal assistance, which is supplemented by states, pro bono contributions and other sources such as the mandatory allocation of (what we would call) interest on lawyers’ client accounts. It currently has a total budget of around $500m and since 2000 has received further sums direct from Congress ($4.25m for this year) to fund a Technology Initiative Grants (TIG) programme. The conference began as a reporting opportunity for TIG grantees but has developed into a wider appraisal of the current state of technology and access to justice. The TIG programme runs, at least theoretically, to a set of goals set at a ‘technology summit’ in 2013. In his keynote introduction to the conference, John Levi, the chair of the LSC’s board, announced a third technology summit to set priorities ‘to be convened later in the year’.
The conference, like the programme, sprawls beyond the narrow original goals. The gathering has become a chance for an annual review of developments – often incorporating an international element. For that reason, it may convey more of a feel of it to select a top 10 impressions rather than artificially attempt the compression of these into themes:
1.Lesson one: you need an overarching strategy and a strategic leader (see above). Look at the Legal Aid Agency and weep.
2.Let’s shift to the fun. Community legal outreach does not have to be boring. TikTok’s potential for communicating legal information is shown by the.law.says.what. So, if you can get community legal outreach messages down to 20 seconds, you might give it a try – this, after all, is where the young people are.
3.There are a number of more sedate advances in helping people find relevant legal information. Some organisations are even seeking to use elementary artificial intelligence in triaging their intake. One example is the Massachusetts Legal Resource Finder, which provides three ways into its content. Having established that you are in the right jurisdiction, you get a choice: to follow straightforward subject headings; to wander down guided pathways that narrow your options; or a natural language search facility that uses Suffolk University Law School’s machine learning SPOT programme: ‘We use SPOT to help the Find Legal Help tool give you suggestions about which legal term in our issue tree fits your legal problem. SPOT remembers your description, which it uses to help improve its service for the benefit of people who need legal help.’
Another example of assisted search comes from Pine Tree Legal Assistance, which provides legal services in Maine. It uses a chatbot called Moose, which cheerfully proclaims: ‘Hi! My name is Moose! I’m a chatbot (not a human). I can’t give you legal advice or be your lawyer. But I can answer questions about Pine Tree’s services and help you find things on our website! I do best with short sentences and questions … what can I help you find?’
4.There has been some interesting use of video. Colorado Legal Services has developed a virtual courthouse tour to assist self-represented litigants. This is a little clunky – the different sections take a bit of time to load (it is not, for example, as smooth as proceeding down a street on Google Maps) – but you can do a 360° tour of a clerk’s office. It must be one of the best visual introductions to a court; it is way ahead of anything available in the UK, and it does suggest how this sort of resource might be developed.
5.Rural legal services can have real problems of access, both physical and virtual. Minnesota has developed Reach Justice Minnesota as a response. This has three strands: 270 legal kiosks hosted by community partners; four justice buses that bring their own broadband; and direct access. The kiosks provide, for the older observer, proof that what goes around comes around. Legal kiosks were described in Shaping the Future: new directions in legal services, published by LAG in 1995. They achieved some wider media notoriety as providing ‘hole-in-the-wall divorces’ operating like ATMs; in reality, the technology was pretty basic and the service inadequate. It was only recently that the advantages of a focused system of remote access to information could be fully developed.
6.Here is one for the techies: do ‘headless content management systems’ mean anything to you? No? Me neither. But go to the website of the People’s Law School (actually in British Columbia, not the US) to see their effect. Most visibly, they make loading a website incredibly fast (with the proven capacity to keep users better engaged). There are various explanations on the web – many suspiciously similar. They all begin by explaining that ‘a headless content management system … is a CMS in which the data (content) layer is separated from its presentation (frontend) layer’. The end results are faster load times and easier data uploading.
7.From high-tech to low. Guess what? The good old text message is still proving handy, as any number of domestic practitioners will already know. A number of organisations, among them Michigan Legal Help, Lone Star Legal Aid and Legal Services of Northern Virginia, are using SMS for communication with users and to prepare intake. Northern Virginia can take a person through a whole set of pre-qualification questions to decide eligibility. Important takeaways: people value anonymity and they don’t like to be texted in the evening.
8.There was a lot of talk of ‘repurposing courts’. Salt Lake City has put a couple of booths for self-representing litigants in its lobby. These have been so successful that people are using them not only to process their cases, but also to undertake any online education courses required by the court. Plans are now being considered to replace three out of the five physical courtrooms with banks of booths.
9.And judges can do outreach. Salt Lake City seems pretty well in the vanguard of taking the court to the people. A team of judges and volunteers took to canoes on the Jordan River to meet the occupants of homeless shelters established there in the summer. The only problem with these ‘kayak courts’ seems to be the heat: the iPads tended to melt in the heat of the Utah summer.
10.Courts can also expand their role by helping litigants in person. The Maryland Justice Passport project is focused on helping litigants through the litigation process once it is underway. The passport is ‘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’ (Sarah Green, ‘Getting organized for court: the Maryland Justice Passport is here’, Anne Arundel County Public Law Library blog, 8 December 2021).
Like the Minnesota project, it is the result of a coalition: Civil Justice, Inc and the Maryland judiciary, with A2J Tech, partnered to create the Passport. It 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 that can prompt the user to take appropriate action. This is support moving beyond the simple provision of advice and information to active assistance in the process of the case.
Of course, there is a digital divide and we can’t allow ourselves to think that tech is the answer to the problems of access to justice. However, this conference suggests that it may provide some of the answers to some of the questions.

About the author(s)

Description: Roger Smith - author
Roger Smith is a solicitor and expert in legal aid issues. He is a former director of LAG and JUSTICE.