Incubating Innovation along the Pacific Rim – Part l: Alaska

Planning work is well underway with our justice community partners in Alaska and Hawaii, but why were these states chosen for this pilot? For a variety of reasons, both jurisdictions are ideally suited as laboratories for new, technology-enabled approaches to significantly expanded access to civil legal resources and solutions.

Alaska superimposed on lower 48Did you know that if superimposed on the lower 48 states, Alaska would stretch from San Francisco, CA to Jacksonville, FL? The municipality of Anchorage is about the size of Delaware alone, and many of the smaller towns and Native Alaskan villages have less than 250-300 residents with no direct road system to connect them. Very few rural communities have lawyers or courts, and some communities in urban centers such as Anchorage and Fairbanks face high unemployment and poverty.

Alaska is also one of the most linguistically diverse states in the country. The Anchorage School District has students who speak more than 107 languages other than English, and Alaska has at least twenty distinct Native languages.

These natural challenges of geography, limited infrastructure and language diversity make traditional means of delivering legal services more difficult.  Because of these factors, the Alaska justice community has found unique ways to surmount these barriers:

    • Alaska has a strong, community-focused network of resource providers across legal aid groups, domestic violence advocates, public libraries, elder advocacy programs, Alaska Native law institutions, among others, that has been born of the need to address gaps in coverage and direct access to legal assistance. This emphasis on community collaboration is modelling offline many of the same strategies the Portal initial aims to undertake online.
    • The Alaska Court System is leading other states in its use of technology to enable remote court appearances via video or by telephone in court proceedings by parties, lawyers, interpreters, and sometimes the judge, which is a common practice today. Every court room has its own toll free conference line to enable telephonic appearances by participating individuals. Similarly, Alaska Legal Services Corporation is a leader in developing innovative medical legal-partnerships and multimedia legal rights resources that significantly expand the reach of legal information and assistance into rural and Native Alaskan communities.
    • Alaska is a long-time leader in developing e-medicine and community health aid programs to overcome challenges in health care delivery, including the shortage of medical professionals in many local communities and distance to specialized experience. These models, as well as the telecom infrastructure developed to support them, can inspire and inform our work on the Portal initiative to bridge analogous challenges in the legal sector.

The Alaska justice community has a deep emphasis on collaboration and a demonstrated spirit of innovation when it comes to forging creative solutions to justice problems. These qualities, along with the well-established programs described above, provide a great environment for piloting the Portal concept. We are excited to be partnering with the Alaska Courts Access to Justice Commission.

 

Stay tuned for Incubating Innovation along the Pacific Rim – Part II: Hawaii

Introducing the Initiative

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Left to Right: Brad Smith, Microsoft; Mark O’Brien, Pro Bono Net; Jim Sandman, LSC

At the 2016 White House Access to Justice Summit, Microsoft, the Legal Services Corporation and Pro Bono Net announced a new partnership to develop statewide “justice portals” to help people navigate to the right resources in their state. The goal of the Portal initiative, dubbed Legal Assist, is to enable justice partners to collaborate in new and creative ways to provide some form of effective assistance to everyone with a civil legal problem.

“Many people find it difficult to access legal services,” said LSC President James J. Sandman. “The goal of the portals is to simplify that process by providing a single, statewide point of access to effective help for people needing civil legal assistance. Each user will be guided to available resources based on the nature of the matter and the user’s personal circumstances.”

Following a competitive application process, Alaska and Hawaii were selected as the jurisdictions to serve as pilots in the portal development.  The pilots aim to integrate and amplify existing efforts by legal aid organizations, courts and other service providers to help more people facing eviction, domestic violence and other civil law issues.  The technology will utilize innovative machine learning/AI technology to assist people in identifying what resources and services are best-suited to help them resolve their legal problem.

“We are delighted to have found legal aid, court, and community partners in Alaska and Hawaii who are committed to innovation designed to help individuals find the appropriate level of assistance to meet their legal needs, and that will allow state justice communities to deliver services more efficiently and effectively,” said Pro Bono Net Executive Director Mark O’Brien.

Developing access to justice portals in every state was one of the recommendations of LSC’s 2013 “Report of the Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice.” In 2015, the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators adopted a resolution supporting “the aspirational goal of 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs.” Technology strategies such as Legal Assist that expand access to justice are a widely viewed as central component of that vision.

“If you can’t afford a lawyer, then you can’t solve crippling housing, child custody, or civil litigation disputes,” said Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith.  “Technology can help bridge this justice gap by empowering people with the advice and services they need to lead fruitful lives.”

Last month, kick-off meetings were held in Alaska and Hawaii. Representatives from Microsoft and Pro Bono Net traveled to meet with the state partners and other community stakeholders, solicit community feedback, and begin planning key steps in the development process.

We excited to share our progress, and what we learn along the way, with the broader justice and legal technology communities. We’ll be blogging here once or twice a month, with regular contributions from our partners in Alaska and Hawaii. Bookmark this blog or sign up for email updates to stay in touch!

Interested in learning more about the project? Contact: Mark McGrath at mmcgrath@probono.net