What’s Technology Got to Do With It?

By Liz Keith, Pro Bono NetIn Montana and around the country, legal aid organizations, courts and their partners are seeing a large and growing number of people facing legal needs on their own. These individuals either do not qualify for legal aid or cannot be served because of insufficient resources, yet they can’t afford to hire a private attorney. Many face potentially life-alerting issues — domestic violence, access to medical care, foreclosure or unemployment issues — that without assistance can worsen or go unresolved, keeping low-income individuals and families in poverty.One way the nonprofit legal aid community is meeting this challenge is by harnessing technology to reach more people with essential information, programs and services. Technology can put information at our fingertips when we need it most, help us learn something new or how to accomplish a task, and bridge long distances. Working at Pro Bono Net, a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to justice, I have the privilege everyday of seeing how legal aid programs are tapping technology to do just that. In turn, they are not only increasing efficiency, but reaching new groups and providing services that otherwise would not be available to client communities. Here are a few examples:

  • Statewide self-help websites such as MontanaLawHelp.org that provide plain language materials and instructional videos to help individuals understand and exercise their rights, and find out what help is available in their local area.
  • Online interactive forms that make it easier for people to accurately prepare court forms or legal documents on their own, such as orders of protection and answers to eviction complaints, by answering questions in an easy-to-use online interface.
  • Online applications that allow individuals to apply for services even if they are not able to visit a legal aid office in person or call during business hours.
  • LiveHelp chat assistance from a trained specialist or volunteer who can help website users find appropriate resources, access self-help forms, and understand how to apply for services if they need help from an attorney.
  • Mobile technologies such as mobile-optimized websites or apps that deliver self-help information instantly regardless of a person’s physical location – whether at a courthouse, social service agency, or other venue — or their access to desktop computer.

Increasingly, legal aid programs are combining these tools to provide more advanced forms of self-help assistance. Programs are also collaborating with courts, libraries, bar associations and community agencies to make sure low income individuals are aware of and can access these resources, even if they don’t have an Internet connection at home. Three legal self-help kiosks recently launched in rural Montana communities (link to a Billings Gazette article) are an example of web-based resource tailored to local community needs.While technology alone will not be enough for everyone, innovations that support self-help play a critical role in access to justice by enabling people to understand and resolve their own legal problems. Self-help tools also allow limited advocate resources to be focused on those cases that require it most. In particular in rural areas, self-help technology, combined with strong partnership strategies, can make new forms of assistance possible on a scale that programs cannot match through their physical reach alone.What technologies do you think can help people understand their legal issue and what needs to be done to resolve it? What resources or partnerships are needed to make it happen? Please share your thoughts.