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Florida Bar Journal

Can Technology Bridge the Justice Gap?

Public Interest Law

There is no question that technology has changed, and will continue to change, the practice of law and the process of lawyering. But could technology help bridge the justice gap for those who cannot afford attorneys? The answer seems to be “yes, but….”

(One) major challenge facing the access to justice movement: a service-delivery model that leaves 80 percent of the legal needs of low-income Americans unmet and turns away half or more of the people who actively seek legal aid. Accepting that status quo as the inevitable result of inadequate funding is complacency. We have to do better. In light of the realities we face, we need to rethink the goal of the access to justice movement. Is it to provide full representation for every client in every case? That is not realistic, and pursuing that goal at the expense of other alternatives is letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. The fact is that some assistance is better than no assistance.1

In August 2015, the national Conference of Chief Justices (CCJ) and Conference of State Court Administrators (COSCA) passed a resolution affirming their support for the aspirational goal of 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs…including:

expanded self-help services to litigants, new or modified court rules and processes that facilitate access, discrete task representation by counsel, increased pro bono assistance, effective use of technology, increased availability of legal aid services, enhanced language access services, and triage models to match specific needs to the appropriate level of services.2

The Justice Gap in America3
When trying to measure the extent to which the American legal system is meeting the legal needs of the general population, we look to several different information sources: 1) studies of the legal needs of the general population; 2) studies of the legal needs of low-income persons; and 3) the prevalence of persons appearing in court without legal representation. These different approaches lead to estimates that from 14 percent to 29 percent of Americans with civil legal problems (including 25 percent of defendants in nonfamily civil cases filed in court) involve the services of lawyers to assist them.4

• The Legal Needs of Low- and Middle-Income Persons — In September 2005, the federal Legal Services Corporation issued a comprehensive report, “Documenting the Justice Gap in America: The Current Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans.” A 2009 report updated the 2005 justice gap report. State level studies confirmed there continues to be a major gap between the civil legal needs of low-income people and the legal help that they receive.5 The Legal Services Corporation reports that legal services organizations nationwide have the resources to meet only 20 percent of the civil legal needs of persons eligible for services under LSC guidelines.6 State and national legal needs assessments consistently show that at least one in four persons in poverty have a legal problem each year.7

The 2014 census estimate shows Florida with a population of 19,893,293 and a poverty rate of 16.3 percent.8 If one out of four of the projected 3,242,606 Floridians living in poverty has a legal issue each year, then more than 800,000 low-income Floridians9 had a legal issue in a year when The Florida Bar Foundation-funded nonprofit legal aid and pro bono programs closed just over 80,000 cases.

Certainly there are many who are not poor enough to qualify for free civil legal aid who are also unable to afford an attorney. Compared to families living in poverty, families in the struggling lower-middle class are more likely to be headed by a married couple, to have a second adult worker, and to be headed by an individual with some college education. However, those in the struggling lower-middle class still face many of the same challenges as those in poverty.10 The direct and indirect cost of employees’ unmet legal needs are also felt by businesses everywhere.11

• Self-Represented Litigants — Courts across the country have not consistently recorded the representation status of litigants. In a presentation to The Florida Bar in 2013,12 consultant Jordan Furlong of Edge Consulting estimated that Americans at all income levels today obtain help from lawyers with only 15 percent of their civil legal problems. He also noted some national and international statistics:80 percent of divorce cases in Florida include at least one pro se litigant; 80 to 85 percent of legal consumers in California are self-represented; 88 percent of Canadians chose a nonlawyer option to resolve their justiciable issues; 84 percent of legal needs of United Kingdom small businesses were resolved without lawyers.

The Maricopa County Superior Court in Phoenix, Arizona, has tracked the representation status of family cases since the early 1990s. Recent data shows that 60 percent of family cases in that court have no lawyers; 30 percent have a lawyer on one side; and 10 percent have lawyers on both sides.13

In 2013, more than 1.8 million litigants were not represented by counsel in civil proceedings in New York’s state courts. In New York City, 91 percent of petitioners and 92 percent of respondents do not have lawyers in child support matters in family court; 99 percent of tenants are unrepresented in eviction proceedings. In New York state, 87 percent of petitioners and 86 percent of respondents do not have lawyers in child support matters in family court; 91 percent of tenants are unrepresented in eviction proceedings.14

Anecdotal reports from other parts of the country show that 85 percent of all family law cases have at least one self-represented party. In many courts, 90 percent of parties in domestic violence restraining order matters are unrepresented.15

The notion of a court-based legal self-help center to provide information and resources to those without full legal representation was launched in the early 1990s in Maricopa County (Phoenix) Arizona. Twenty years later, the American Bar Association identified approximately 500 self-help centers around the country, of which 222 responded to an online survey with the following results: Nearly 3.7 million people are served by self-help centers annually and are focused on services for persons of limited resources. Most believed their customers would benefit from limited-scope representation, though only 38 percent of the centers provide information about such services and only 15 percent indicate that their community has a limited-scope lawyer referral service panel.16

Low-Income Americans Can Use Technology and Access the Internet — Eighty-seven percent of American adults with a household income of less than $30,000 per year use the Internet;1799 percent of Americans living in urban areas have access to high-speed broadband;1890 percent of American adults own a cell phone;1970 percent of all phones in use in this country are smartphones.20

Of course, not everyone has broadband at home or carries a smartphone. There have to be other ways to access the Internet, such as public libraries, and to use facilitators, like public and law librarians, to help those who cannot navigate online by themselves. When the technology is simply too much or the user has an emergency situation that demands immediate attention, alternatives that involve immediate human intervention have to be built into systems.

• Technology in the National Legal Aid/Pro Bono Community — The biggest driver behind technology development in the national legal aid community has been the 15-year, $45 million-plus investment of the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC) in Technology Initiative Grant (TIG) funding, encompassing 550 projects. TIG funds have been used to create replicable projects, such as mobile apps, enterprise-level knowledge management, and multi-site videoconferencing, open-source telephony, expert systems triage, and online legal education guides in multiple languages. National platforms, such as ProBonoNet and commonly used applications, such as A2J Author interviewing software have also emerged as a result of TIG funding. Other examples include:21

1) National Network of Statewide Websites —The TIG program played a critical role in the development of statewide legal aid websites in all 50 states a decade or more ago. These websites provide information including legal aid office locations and pro bono opportunities. Many utilize online video, live chat, and other technologies to provide legal information in the areas most needed by low-income people. Surveys show that users of TIG-supported websites are highly satisfied: 76 percent find them easy or very easy to use and 88 percent find the information they provide easy or very easy to understand.

2) Automating Legal Form and Document Preparation —LawHelpInteractive (LHI) uses technology to improve the legal form and document preparation process for low-income people and the attorneys who assist them. Using the A2J Author interviewing software for web-based interviews, LHI presents users with a series of questions about a particular legal issue. The answers enable users to create high-quality court forms and other legal documents on their own. In over 40 states, this technology has helped legal aid advocates, pro bono lawyers, and self-represented litigants create over 2.3 million legal documents since 2005. Interviews are available in multiple languages and can include video and sound to support a broader range of individuals with legal needs.

3) Using Technology to Support Pro Bono —LSC has devoted more than $1.2 million to funding projects that use technology to support and manage pro bono efforts, including websites and other automated tools that make volunteering for a pro bono case and providing services to clients easier and more convenient for legal professionals. Examples include a recent revamping of (built on the probononet template) that allows volunteers to find and sign up for pro bono opportunities and access trainings, practice materials, mentors, and law student assistance to support their pro bono work. Other TIG-funded projects offer secure online space enabling clients, pro bono, and legal aid lawyers and law students to exchange legal documents and information.

4) Online Intake —Online intake allows individuals to apply for assistance at any time through the web. Online intake systems are also integrated into programs’ case management systems, which saves time and reduces mistakes by allowing intake staff to simply verify user information instead of inputting it manually into a client database. Online intake systems have resulted in significant time and resource savings by converting a data collection function to a data confirmation function.

Other national efforts/resources include:

1) LSC’s Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice Technology report;22

2) Legal Services National Technology Assistance Project,, offers and archives webinars and moderates multiple related Listservs;

3) National websites for disaster legal assistance (, veterans (, trafficking ( victims, and unaccompanied children (;

4) The national blog/database ( posts successful evidence-based practices and the results of research in an easily accessible web-based format for state justice systems’ use.

Measuring Results
These investments, as well as funding and project development by Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts (IOLTA) programs (like The Florida Bar Foundation), as well as individual legal aid programs, the courts, state, and local bar foundations are beginning to show measurable results.

In Illinois, the Coordinated Advice and Referral Program for Legal Services (CARPLS)23 in Chicago experienced significant increases in the delivery of services due to the creation of a knowledge management system: going from 12,000 cases to almost 50,000 cases handled by advocate staff and 800 to 8,900 volunteer closed cases in a single year.24

Michigan’s Legal Help Program consists of two components: an interactive website and affiliated self-help centers that provide legal information assistance to individuals representing themselves. The Michigan Legal Help website was assessed by an independent consultant25 for its efficacy in helping self-represented litigants successfully26 navigate the divorce process.27 Seventy-four percent of litigants using the website obtained a judgment of divorce28 and concluded the process in less time than self-represented litigants who did not use the website.

The New York State Courts Access to Justice Program (NY DIY Forms Program) uses A2J Author interviewing software,29 a graphic interface designed for lower-literacy users; and HotDocs to produce attractive, user-friendly document assembly programs that address pro se needs and alleviate many of the challenges DIY court-based forms and document assembly.30 Completed programs are hosted on Pro Bono Nets national online document assembly project, Law Help Interactive. Unrepresented litigants can access the New York programs on the Internet31 or in terminals in court clerk’s offices, help centers, and public access law libraries.

In 2012, over 100,000 court documents were assembled from the 24 programs32 used in different case types in courts throughout the state. The DIY form programs have been shown to save court clerk’s time and improve court efficiency in a number of ways. Court personnel spend less time answering litigant questions when the litigant has already been guided step-by-step through the process by a document assembly program; more accurate and complete forms lead to fewer rejection of pleadings; court employees in the court help centers and clerk’s offices find they can serve more litigants in a shorter amount of time at a faster pace by employing the DIY forms programs; court congestion is potentially eased as access to DIY forms is available beyond business hours; and litigants save trips to the courthouse when self-help is available at all times.

Technology in Florida’s Legal Aid/Pro Bono Community
Several of Florida’s law schools33 and individual legal aid programs34 have been early and enthusiastic adopters of technology to increase access to justice. The Florida Bar Foundation has provided both historical support and more recent investments in technology to support its 30 legal aid and pro bono program grantees across the state.

• Since 2008, 27 of the foundation’s 30 legal aid/pro bono general support grantees have used the same web-based case management system.

• Last summer, the Foundation conducted a statewide technology inventory of all its general support grantees, resulting in the publication of a Florida statewide framework for technology in November 2015.35

• In order to increase Foundation grantees’ awareness of cutting-edge technology projects across the country, the Foundation provided financial assistance to support grantee staff attendance at the 2014 and 2015 national legal aid technology innovation (TIG) conferences. Both years, the Foundation hosted a daylong preconference for all Florida TIG attendees with international and national experts, speakers, and panelists.

On July 1, 2015, the Florida Justice Technology Center was launched with Florida Bar Foundation funding.36 The Florida Justice Technology Center (FJTC) is an independent Florida 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation dedicated to increasing access to justice statewide through the innovative use of technology. FJTC start-up funding from The Florida Bar Foundation was made possible as part of a bridge loan made to the foundation by The Florida Bar last year. FJTC is modeled on the only other statewide nonprofit access to justice technology entity in the country, the nationally acclaimed Illinois Legal Aid Online.37

The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice offers an ATJ knowledge base38 at with dozens of studies, reports, and articles by and from access to justice commissions across the country, as well as everything produced by and for the Florida commission and its five subcommittees. The interim report of the commission recommends a statewide online gateway portal to serve as an online connector to existing information/resources, self-help, advice, and/or representation.39

Access to Justice Technology on the International Stage
The Hague Institute for the Internationalization of Law’s (HiiL’s) Innovating Justice Awards40 encourage innovations across the justice sector by promoting successful ideas and initiatives to legal professionals across the world. In 2014, two projects funded through LSC’s TIG program were named finalists for the Innovating Justice Awards. One was A2J Author.41 The biggest vote-getter in the competition was Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut’s Online Advocacy Simulation for Self-Represented Parties — using gaming technology to provide self-represented litigants with advocacy experience before going to court.42

HiiL’s Innovating Justice Accelerator43 is a unique platform comprised of a carefully selected community of justice innovators, experts, and investors. The platform connects quality projects with expert knowledge, partners, and funding. In its efforts to improve access to justice, HiiL announced it is building local Innovating Justice Hubs and establishing an investment fund dedicated to justice innovations.

Another HiiL venture, Rechtwijzer 2.0,44 is an online-based dispute resolution platform. The Rechtwijzer platform is software-as-a-service (SaaS). Legal aid organizations, courts, legal expenses insurers, and other partners to the consortium advise on the evolution of the platform, its features, and its content. HiiL and Modria45 guarantee all hosting, maintenance, and support issues, as well as ongoing user testing and platform updating. The first Rechtwijzer implementation was launched at end of 2014 for divorce-related issues in The Netherlands.

Technology: One Bridge Traversing the Gap
While it is apparent technology alone cannot bridge the justice gap, it is also apparent the justice gap cannot be bridged without embracing 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.”46

(There is a) vision for the convergence of the technology…to achieve the ultimate goal of providing some form of effective assistance to 100 [percent] of persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney for dealing with essential civil legal needs…this doesn’t mean a lawyer for everyone for every matter; that’s just not realistic. What it does mean is not turning anyone away with no assistance at all, which is what happens all too often today….

We make this happen by convergence — legal aid, the bench, the bar, law schools, libraries, and anyone else who cares about justice, coming together so all the pieces are there. No more each building our own systems, but a cooperative approach to provide the information, advice, and representation needed so that access to justice is there for Everyone, Anytime, Anywhere.47

1 Legal Services Corporation President Jim Sandman, Rethinking Access to Justice, Hawaii Access to Justice Conference (June 20, 2014), available at

2 CCJ/COSCA, Resolution 5: Reaffirming the Commitment to Meaningful Access to Justice for All, available at

3 Interim Report of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, 31-34 (Oct. 1, 2015) (justice gap analysis prepared by Greacen and Associates, LLC (Aug. 2015)), available at; see also Steven Seidenberg, Unequal Justice: U.S. Trails High-Income Nations in Serving Civil Legal Needs, ABA J. (June 1, 2015), available at

4 Id.

5 Since 2005, seven states have conducted legal needs studies using similar methodologies and were compared to draw currently valid, nationally applicable conclusions from them. The findings of these studies were also compared to the nine state studies conducted during 2000-2005. A Report of the Legal Services Corporation, Documenting the Justice Gap in America (Sept. 2005), available at

6 Legal Service Corporation, The Unmet Need for Legal Aid,

7 Id. at 2.

8 U.S. Census Bureau Florida, Quick Facts, Florida,

9 In 2015, with financial eligibility at 125 percent of the federal poverty level, the single person annual household income cap would be $14,713. For a family of four, $30,313 would be the annual total household income cap. See Legal Service Corporation, Who We Are, Who Is Helped by LSC-funded Programs?, In 2013, there were 63.6 million people living in the U.S. with annual household incomes below 125 percent of federal poverty level. See Legal Services Corporation, FY 2016 Budget Request, Who Qualifies for LSC-funded Services, (“6.3 million (9.9 [percent]) were seniors 65 years or older. 7.5 million (12.0 [percent]) were 18-64 years old with at least one disability. An estimated 1.8 million veterans were eligible for LSC-funded services. One-half (50.2 [percent]) of the working age adults (16-64 years old) eligible for LSC-funded services were employed. Nearly one in seven — 5.5 million — worked full-time, year-round in 2013, but earned so little their families had annual incomes less than 125 [percent] of the federal poverty line.”).

10 Benjamin H. Harris & Melissa S. Kearney, A Dozen Facts about America’s Struggling Lower-Middle-Class, Brookings (Dec. 4, 2013), available at

11 RussellSM Research, Measuring the Effects of Employee Financial and Legal Woes (March 2012), available at The study reported that “55 percent of employees who experienced a legal life event reported it impacted their work” and that “in the past 12 months, employees with legal issues, on average, spent 17 hours at work and took 9.5 days off work to deal with legal life events.” See also Harris Interactive on behalf of Hyatt Legal Plans, Inc., Quantifying The Workplace Impact of Employees’ Personal Legal Matters (2011), available at

12 Mark Killian, Legal Profession Must Change with the Times or Be Left Behind, Fla. B. News, July 15, 2014, available at /DIVCOM/JN/JNNews01.nsf/RSSFeed/C48FFE62AEEBC2EA85257D0E00424A1E; see also The Florida Bar, Florida Bar PRI, Video #11: A Transforming Legal Environment: Setting a New Course for Success,

13 Communication to John Greacen in 2011.

14 Legal Service Corporation, The Unmet Need for Legal Aid,

15 Madelynn Herman, Pro Se Statistics, National Center for State Courts (June 21, 2006), available at (citing California data).

16 ABA, Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services, The Self-Help Center Census: A National Survey (Aug. 2014), available at

17 Pew Research Center, Mobile Technology Fact Sheet,

18 Statista, Smartphone Users as Percentage of All Mobile Users in the U.S. from 2010 to 2017,

19 Pew Research Center, Internet User Demographics,

20 Id.

21 Legal Services Corporation, Technology Initiative Grants Highlights and Impact, (the four broad categories of TIG funding examples are taken directly).

22 Legal Services Corporation, The Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice,

23 CARPLS is a legal aid hotline and court-based advice desk serving the Chicago metropolitan area that resolves over 85 percent of all cases in-house by providing information, advice, and brief services, including the preparation and review of legal documents.

24 Al Schwartz, Executive Director, CARPLS, Knowledge Management System,

25 Kerry Sheldon, Bridgeport Consulting, Michigan Legal Help Evaluation Report (Jan. 2, 2015), available at

26 Success was defined as reaching a judgment within a reasonable amount of time. The experience of Michigan Legal Help was compared to that of other self-represented litigants (those without attorney representation who do not use the website) as well with attorney-represented litigants.

27 Divorce was chosen because the divorce with or without children interview “currently accounts for 64 [percent] of all completed interviews available through the Michigan Legal Help website. Divorce pleadings derived from the website are also easily identifiable as such.”

28 In Michigan in 2013, 48 percent of divorce cases were filed by self-represented plaintiffs, and 68 percent of cases had one or more self-represented litigants. Forty-two percent of divorce cases had no attorney involvement at all

29 A2J Author Community Site, (created in 2004 by the Center for Computer Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI) and the IIT Chicago Kent College of Law Center for Access to Justice and Technology (now Illinois Legal Aid Online)).

30 Rochelle Klempner, The Case for Court-Based Document Assembly Programs: A Review of the New York State Court System’s “DIY” Forms, Fordham Urban L. J. (May 27, 2014).

31 The NYS Unified Court System’s website for unrepresented litigants is known as CourtHelp, Most of the programs are also available through the New York LawHelp site, See also DIY User Testimonials,

32 See DIY Forms, New York State Courts Access to Justice Program, (listing programs by case type and court and providing links to programs landing pages). The access to justice program follows a set of best practice guidelines for the development of DIY form programs. Rochelle Klempner, Best Practices for Court Help Centers: A Guide for Court Administrators and Help Center Staff Inside and Outside New York State (Apr. 2015), available at

33 Miami School of Law, Miami Law Joins Project to Lower Barriers to Justice (Jan. 2, 2013),

34 In 2013, Legal Services of Greater Miami received an LSC TIG grant to develop an online intake system allowing prospective clients to apply for services at any time through the web.

35 The Florida Bar Foundation, A Technology Planning Framework for Florida (Oct. 31, 2014), available at

36 Foundation Funds New Justice Technology Center, Fla. Bar News, Aug. 1, 2015, available at /DIVCOM/JN/jnnews01.nsf/8c9f13012b96736985256aa900624829/a98ab5862fa7ff3e85257e88004986d4!OpenDocument.

37 Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO), (created in 2001 by 12 partner organizations as the Illinois Technology Center for Law & the Public Interest. In March 2005, Illinois Legal Aid Online was incorporated as an independent nonprofit).

38 Florida Commission on Access to Justice, ATJ Knowledge Base,

39 Interim Report of The Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice at 7-9 (Oct. 1, 2015), available at

40 Innovating Justice Challenge,!/pp/innovating-justice-awards-2014.

41 IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, A2J Author,

42 Legal Services Corporation, Statewide Legal Services of Connecticut, Inc., Project Narrative, available at (submitted as part of the LSC TIG grant application process).

43 Innovating Justice Challenge, Forum,

44 Rechtwijzer was nominated for Council of Europe’s European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice 2015 Crystal Scales of Justice Award. See Rechtwijzer 2.0: Technology That Puts Justice in Your Hands,

45, Inc., (Modria founders created the online dispute resolution systems at eBay and PayPal, which process over 60 million disputes per year, 90 percent through automation — without human intervention.).

46 Legal Services Corporation, Report of The Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice, A Vision of an Integrated Service-Delivery System at 2 (Dec. 2013), available at

47 Bill Gates, Everyone, Anytime, Anywhere: The Next Step for Technology Is Universal Access, Forbes (Oct. 4, 1999)(Glenn Rawdon, LSC Technology Program Counsel, White House Forum on Increasing Access to Justice, (Apr. 8, 2014), available at The catchphrase “Everyone, Anytime, Anywhere” appears in the article).

Melissa A. Moss is the deputy director of The Florida Bar Foundation.

This column is submitted on behalf of the Public Interest Law Section, Alice Maria Vickers, chair.

Public Interest Law