Microsoft partners with Legal Services Corporation and Pro Bono Net to create access to justice portal

5710.Dave Heiner downloaded low redAuthor: David Heiner, Microsoft

Originally posted in 2016 on Microsoft’s official blog, David Heiner’s post is as relevant now as it was then. Two years later, the partnership between Pro Bono Net, Microsoft and the Legal Services Corporation is well underway. With Alaska and Hawaii chosen as our pilot states, we have been diligently working towards the vision described in this post.

David Heiner is now the Strategic Policy Advisor for Microsoft Corporation and currently Chairs Pro Bono Net’s Board of Directors.

Imagine you are single, with two kids, one in diapers. You have steady work, but after paying for commuting, child care, food and rent, there isn’t much left over. You speak Spanish natively, and English well enough to get by. Things are going along pretty well until the heat fails, repeatedly, in your apartment. When the landlord doesn’t fix it despite your complaints, you withhold rent, as you are legally entitled to do. Not long after that, you are served with an eviction notice.

Where do you turn?

You are not a lawyer, you don’t know any lawyers, and you certainly can’t afford to pay a lawyer. You’ve heard you can “represent” yourself in court – but how? You may be able to get help from a legal aid organization, but which one? The legal aid “system,” such as it is, is de-centralized and fragmented, making it hard to know even where to begin, much less how to solve your problem.

Millions of people in America face challenges like this every year. For better or worse, we are a highly legalistic society, but not everyone has access to the justice system. That can render people powerless – people who need help with housing, employment, government benefits or protection from an abusive spouse. In an era of increasing concern about income inequality, this is a big problem: the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) – an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans – estimates that only about 20 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income people in the United States are adequately addressed.

Technology can help. The same tools that businesses and people are increasingly using to shop, learn and communicate can be deployed to address the access-to-justice gap. The technological building blocks are available – we just need to get to work building solutions to address access to justice.

That is why earlier today Microsoft joined with the LSC and Pro Bono Net in announcing the development of a prototype access to justice “portal.” Microsoft will provide funding of at least $1 million and project management expertise to build out this project.

Drawing on state-of-the-art cloud and Internet technologies, this portal will enable people to navigate the court system and legal aid resources, learn about their legal rights and prepare and file critical court documents in a way that is accessible, comprehensive and easy to navigate. The ultimate goal is to help people every step of the way toward addressing their legal problem.

This first-of-its-kind system will be accessible from any device, standards-compliant and connected to legal aid organizations through open software interfaces. Once the prototype is developed, we will post it in open source form to GitHub, one of the leading sites for open-source software development projects. That way, others can build upon it or build other, comparable systems. Over time, we hope that every state will develop a portal solution to provide a modern, efficient way for everyone to access the court system and legal aid resources. With recent advances in machine learning, we can even imagine that within the not-too-distant future systems such as these could enable people to speak naturally and receive help in a comfortable “chat” format tailored to their specific needs.

LSC developed the vision for this portal over the past few years, working with leaders from across the access to justice community. The National Center for State Courts recently began fleshing out the technical requirements for such a portal. Pro Bono Net, a national non-profit organization dedicated to addressing the access-to-justice gap through technology and collaboration, has agreed to help convene local partners and provide service design expertise to execute the pilot. We couldn’t be happier to start working with all three of these organizations to implement LSC’s vision of access to justice for all.

NextGen Fellow Amanda Brown: Interview by Thomson Reuters

amanda20brownThe Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute is dedicated to bringing together thought leaders from the legal industry to encourage discussion and debate. As part of their blog commentary they interview industry leaders and promising individuals within the industry. This July, the Legal Executive Institute interviewed NextGen Fellow, Amanda Brown, who is currently working on the statewide portals project.

To potential clients, navigating civil legal aid is often an opaque, confusing, and inefficient process. Last year, Microsoft, Pro Bono Net, and the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) set out to change that, announcing a partnership to direct low-income persons to appropriate legal aid resources through statewide online justice portals.

As a NextGen Fellow, Amanda joined with the ABA Center for Innovation to assist Microsoft, Pro Bono Net and the LSC on the statewide online justice portals. Read her interview to learn more about her experience working on the project.

Meet Our Partner – Avanade

Increasingly, collaborations are emerging as an effective strategy to address civil legal needs in underserved communities. The current system for accessing legal assistance is complex and difficult to navigate. This portal project aims to rectify this by integrating and amplifying existing efforts by legal aid organizations, courts and other service providers to help more people facing eviction, domestic violence and other civil law issues. Collaboration between the organizations working in the access to justice sphere is essential to these efforts.

Alaska and Hawaii were selected as pilot states in part because of the collaborative relationships between legal access to justice partners in those states.

“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,” – Mark O’Brien, Pro Bono Net Executive Director

To learn more about why these states were selected, visit the Incubating Innovation along the Pacific Rim posts for Alaska and Hawaii.

From the orginal partners, Pro Bono Net, Microsoft and LSC, to the organizations in our pilot states of Hawaii and Alaska, each organization we partner with plays a significant role in the development of a comprehensive approach to civil legal assistance across the country.

Avanade

Avanade Logo

We would like to introduce one of our technology partners and their role in the pilot portals. Avanade is a joint venture between Microsoft Corporation and Accenture LLP. They have recently participated in listening sessions in Hawaii and Alaska to identify real-life barriers to legal support. Based on those findings, Avanade is helping the project to create a portal that uses artificial intelligence technologies such as natural language processing and machine learning to help understand the needs and requirements of an individual in a natural and plain manner, in the context of their situation and help them to be able to assist them quickly, safely, and in an inclusive manner.

We are thrilled to have the Avanade team working closely with us on the portal pilots in Hawaii and Alaska.

New Simplifying Legal Help Webpage

We are thrilled to announce a brand new webpage on the progress of the Statewide Justice Portal Project. The new page was created to provide more information and resources related to Simplifying Legal Help.

SLH LSC Logo Image

Read the latest project news, view photos and videos about the project, and stay connected as the Legal Services Corporation, Microsoft and Pro Bono Net partner with justice communities in Alaska and Hawaii to develop statewide legal access portals that simplify the process of finding legal help.

A companion piece to Simplifying Legal Help Blog, www.lsc.gov/simplifying-legal-help is hosted on the Legal Services Corporation’s website. The page will feature information on the project and share the progress of the partnership and pilots in Hawaii and Alaska. It will serve as a helpful repository of information and links to resources and related information.

We encourage you to stop by and take a look at the new page and don’t forget to check back for updates.

Subscribe to this blog to get the latest updates on the new webpage and status of this innovative project to increase access to legal help.

Learn More: New Video on Statewide Access to Justice Portals

Legal Services Corporation has released a new video on the statewide access to justice portals. Watch it here to see highlights from the project announcement at the white house and hear from Brad Smith, President and Chief Legal Officer of Microsoft Corporation, LSC’s President Jim Sandman, and Mark O’Brien, Pro Bono Net’s Executive Director.

Incubating Innovation along the Pacific Rim – Part II: Hawaii

MapCarte20_PattersonSimilar to Alaska, Hawaii, with one large urban center in Honolulu, on the island of Oahu, and the rest of the population spread among the other seven islands, experiences geographic and infrastructure challenges to traditional modes of legal services delivery.  Like Alaska, the justice community in Hawaii has developed some key strengths to compensate for these challenges:

  • Hawaii has a large consortium of service providers – cutting across the legal, health and human services sectors –  that has evolved to meet the growing needs of a geographically dispersed community.
  • Beginning in 2011, the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, Volunteer Legal Services Hawaii, the Hawaii State Bar Association, local bar associations, and the Hawaii State Judiciary have collaborated to establish self-help centers now located in every circuit court in the state. These centers are staffed by volunteer attorneys and LASH’s AmeriCorps advocates.
  • The Legal Aid Society of Hawai’i has developed over 40 online interactive pro se interviews utilizing Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive, along with a robust collection of legal rights guides and videos for LawHelp.org/HI. These resources have been integrated with Legal Aid’s service delivery, and promoted to pro se litigants through partnerships with public libraries and the Hawaii State Judiciary, Legal Aid also recently worked with its justice community partners to develop a guided triage tool for people searching for legal assistance to more easily identify resources and referrals. The service provider analysis undertaken for this project will provide an important foundation for the Portal initiative.
  • The community has innovated in other ways to meet needs across the state, including through hotlines, nonprofit mediation programs such as the Mediation Center for the Pacific (one of the first established in the country) and pop-up legal clinics in the more remote areas.  In 2017, the National Center for Access to Justice ranked Hawaii as among the top three states in the country with practices aimed at making access to justice a reality for all people, and Hawaii was ranked first in the country for providing support to litigants with Limited English Proficiency.

With these attributes and its strong grounding in local community needs, it’s easy to see why the Aloha state’s justice community earned this recognition and is such fertile ground for this pilot initiative.

Because of this demonstrated spirit of innovation, out-of-the-box thinking, and robust networks of providers, each offers a unique ideal environment to pilot the concept of the portal project.

We recently conducted kickoff meetings in both states to connect with local stakeholders and providers.   It was an excellent opportunity to discuss many of the unique challenges and needs faced by these states, again reaffirming that we have the right partners on board to pilot the Legal Assist project.

 

 

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

Announcement_Insert
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 Simplifying Legal Help, 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