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Providing Effective Assistance for Civil Legal Needs:

Turning to New Technology to Solve an Old Problem

By Taylor K. Caleb, Vanderbilt Law School Class of 2020

In the 2019 series of student blog posts for Legal Problem Solving, students are digging into the American Bar Association's 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services to explore how far we've come in 2019 and what remains to do in the innovation of legal services delivery.

The American Bar Association 2016 Report on the Future of Legal Services sets forth several recommendations to enhance the delivery of legal services in the United States. Its first recommendation is that the legal profession support the goal of providing effective assistance for essential civil legal needs to all individuals unable to afford an attorney.

The Dire Need for Change

The troubling fact that Americans every day are unrepresented in some of the most emotional tolling scenarios out there—whether their child has been taken from them or whether they have been thrown out on the street by their landlord—must be addressed. There are numerous causes to point to as to why so many legal issues go unresolved. Of course, at the center of the spotlight, is money. Attorneys typically charge expensive rates, and most lawyers in the United States do not devote their practice to pro bono or “low bono” work. Lack of funds is only part of the issue, however. Many individuals do not seek legal help because they do not know where to go for help or how to navigate the complicated judicial processes. They may be weary to trust an attorney and may think that they can handle the matter more expeditiously on their own.

Countless endeavors have been undertaken over years past to address this pressing issue. Much of the effort is highlighted through the work of nonprofit groups and pro bono projects. However, as the ABA 2016 Report notes, pro bono alone cannot provide the underserved with adequate legal services. Despite extensive efforts, this longstanding trouble persists.

Technology as a Solution

The ABA sets forth numerous recommendations to improve the delivery of legal services in the United States. One of its solutions, to turn to technology, is particularly provocative. Attainable proposals like this recommendation should be the primary focus, as some of the ABA’s other solutions are admirable but likely impractical in today’s world.

For instance, the ABA’s first “principle” that it sets forth states that “[l]egal representation should be provided as a matter of right at public expense to low-income persons in adversarial proceedings where basic human needs are at stake.” In a perfect world, of course, this would be ideal. No one should face the risk of losing their child or their home without competent representation. But the essential means to provide representation as a right in civil cases do not currently exist. Seemingly anyone can recite the Miranda warning by heart thanks to popular crime TV shows: you have the right to an attorney. Yet the harsh reality is that there are justice systems in the United States today that have too little resources to even provide criminal defendants with a public defender—representation that is a right under the U.S. Constitution.

Until states have addressed this injustice within their criminal system, they should not implement this same “guarantee” for their civil systems as the ABA 2016 Report suggests. Instead, there is another recommendation closer to home, more short-term focused, and actually achievable that states should adopt to help mend the justice gap: technology.

“Technology can and must play a vital role in transforming service delivery so that all poor people in the United States with an essential civil legal need obtain some form of effective assistance.” The various steps one must take to receive judicial relief can be confusing, lengthy, and unnecessary. Implementing new technologies can allow people in need to shortcut the complicated system and access quick, meaningful guidance.

The beauty of such a recommendation is that various courts can adopt the means that are best to meet their unique ends. As the ABA 2016 Report suggests, a court could provide computer access to a website that offers sophisticated yet understandable information on areas of the law like child custody and debt collection. The technological platform could offer basic information, identify legal solutions, and provide forms and procedures for pursuing those remedies. Alternatively, perhaps a state with complex procedural requirements could develop technology to allow the submission of documents online instead of requiring in-person delivery to the courthouse. Or a court could present an online video explaining how to go through the process step-by-step. The possibilities are endless. While implementing new technologies would undoubtedly demand an expenditure of time, money, and other resources, this solution can offer a great deal of return to courts, attorneys, and litigants alike.

It is clear that the most powerful legal system in the world is not anywhere close to perfect. Great change is necessary to bridge the gap of civil justice in the United States. While some proposed solutions may seem too ambitious to properly implement, many achievable goals are within reach. Adopting new technologies in the judicial system can offer tremendous value that can be tailored to the unique circumstances of each state or locality. A turn to futuristic devices can help ease the burden on the courts, provide more efficient processes, and—most importantly—help put an end the age-old crisis of unmet legal needs.