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March 1, 2016
Access portal pilot vetted

AG Bondi has funds available for the project

By Jan Pudlow
Senior Editor

The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice broke into applause when Attorney General Pam Bondi announced that a settlement agreement with Chase over bad-debt collection practices will finance a proposed pilot project to test the concept of a statewide portal that will allow Floridians to use smartphones to find help for their legal problems.

Attorney General Pam Bondi “This is not the first time you have stepped up,” said Donny MacKenzie, president of The Florida Bar Foundation and a Holland & Knight attorney.

“I very much and sincerely appreciate all the help you have given to the citizens of Florida in your tenure. And this latest $500,000 gift to The Florida Bar Foundation for the purposes of this pilot project will speak volumes to your legacy and will do a tremendous amount of good for the citizens of Florida.”

The $500,000 comes from a $136-million joint state-federal settlement between Chase Bank USA N.A. and Chase Bankcard Services, Inc., with Bondi and 47 other attorneys general, the District of Columbia, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. As part of the agreement, announced in July, 5,000 Chase customers in Florida will receive more than $4.6 million in restitution, with an additional $1.6 million going to Florida’s general revenue fund. In addition, $15.3 million will go to 47 nonprofit organizations across the state to be used for legal services, financial literacy, and other programs related to helping Floridians manage their debt.

The commission learned a lot about the “Triage Gateway Project” pilot from retired First District Court of Appeal Judge William Van Nortwick, who chairs the commission’s Access to and Delivery of Legal Services Subcommittee.

The basic idea for the pilot in Clay County is to work out the kinks of the grand concept of a statewide online portal, where anyone — regardless of income level — could use a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop, a personal computer, or walk into a library and use a public computer to type in a legal problem and almost instantly be directed to help.

The citizen’s legal problem would be triaged by the online intake system. That help could range from quick emergency services for someone in danger of bodily harm in a domestic violence crisis, to online forms for pro se litigants, to legal services attorneys for low-income folks, to paid lawyers in a referral system. The help recommended for a particular problem might not be a lawyer at all.

“We are trying to get people to the right resources as quickly as possible. It’s that, in a nutshell,” said MacKenzie, noting that 76 percent of people, regardless of income, own smartphones.

Senior Judge Emerson Thompson, Jr., likened it to a “411” information system with “the goal of getting people into the system at the level they can afford to pay. . . at the price point they can afford.”

Chief Justice Jorge Labarga repeatedly voiced concerns that his colleagues on the Florida Supreme Court will have many questions, and they will need a report and demonstration of what the pilot hopes to achieve before delegating the job to The Florida Justice Technology Center. Members of the commission wanted to hear more about this nonprofit entity launched last year that received funding from The Florida Bar Foundation, through a bridge loan from The Florida Bar. It is modeled on the only other statewide nonprofit access to justice technology entity in the country, Illinois Legal Aid Online, and is led by Joyce Raby, a former legal aid technology coordinator for the Washington State Bar Association and co-founder of the national Legal Services Corporation Technology Innovations Grant Program.

“I would go ahead with the pilot, but I’m telling you the court may have questions,” Labarga said. “I’m the chief justice, but I’m just one vote.”

After some tweaking to give wiggle room in the language of the motion, the commissioners unanimously agreed to recommend that the Florida Supreme Court “discuss the possible delegation to the Florida Justice Technology Center the task to develop and carry out the pilot with all the relevant stakeholders. At the conclusion of the pilot a full report will be given to the commission. Such possible delegation to the FJTC would be subject to obtaining financing, fiscal oversight by The Florida Bar Foundation, and any conditions imposed by the commission or the Florida Supreme Court.”

Van Nortwick said his work group (that includes MacKenzie and Jim Kowalski, executive director of Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, Inc.) has spent more than 300 hours of research and discussions on the best way to go forward with the pilot. They consulted with Ed Marks, director of New Mexico Legal Aid, who serves on the New Mexico Access to Justice Commission and National Center for State Courts litigant portal business requirements committee. Marks has donated his time and expertise for Florida’s pilot, and brought their vendor to the table, Van Nortwick said.

He named potential pilot partners as Neota Logic and ProBonoNet.

“We all know we don’t have enough money for lawyers for every poor person. We have to do it another way,” Van Nortwick said. “The chief told me it’s a great idea, but it can’t take forever. . . . Time is of the essence.”

They settled on Clay County in the Fourth Judicial Circuit for the pilot because it’s a county where judges, court administrators, clerks, legal services, and Bar members work well together, Van Nortwick said.

“Some counties don’t get along,” he said. They wanted a county that had a small, manageable population, with significant poverty and low-income residents, and a vulnerable population. There are a lot of veterans in Clay County, as well as a diverse ethnic population, he said.

“We think Clay County would be an ideal location for the pilot,” Van Nortwick said.

The two legislators serving on the commission — Rep. Charles McBurney and Sen. Rob Bradley — both said the Legislature needs to be engaged soon if they hope to get state funding for the statewide Triage Gateway Project.

“This is exciting,” Bradley said. “While funding is secured for the pilot, the next system, that will be an invoice that will come to us. . . .We only get one chance to do this, and it has to be done right.”

“We need buy-in from the seven justices; we need buy-in from the Attorney General; and we need buy-in from the Legislature as well,” Bradley said.

Van Nortwick said his work group is available to meet with the Legislature.

If the commission decides later to recommend to the Florida Supreme Court to implement a permanent statewide Triage Gateway, Van Nortwick explained, the Florida Justice Technology Center could prepare the request for proposals (RFP) to contract with vendors.

“I hope I am not being Pollyannaish on funding, but the Legal Services Corporation might pay for the Gateway, but not the maintenance,” Van Nortwick said. “We will need a source of funds. . . . There’s no doubt about that.”

There was also a unanimous vote to make the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice permanent, because the challenges are great and the work is ongoing.

[Revised: 06-21-2016]