Role of the Courts and Legal Navigation in Alaska

Stacey Marz is the Director of Self-Help Services for the Alaska Court System.

The Project

Alaska’s courts have seen many individuals representing themselves.  Studies show that 80% of people who experience legal issues do not do address them through the traditional legal system, either because they do not recognize them as “legal,” accept their situation as fate or what is meant to be, or simply do not know what to do. To address this issue, the Alaska Court System and our Alaskan partners have come together to create an online tool that will help people who know they have a legal issue, but also reach those who may not recognize their problem as legal in nature.

The “Legal Navigator” is designed to be used by individuals alone or with non-legal providers with whom they may already be working to address a variety of other issues.  We are automating self-help in a new way that replicates the questions someone may be asked if interacting directly with a facilitator at the court self-help center.  Based on their answers, the result will be a plan tailored to the individual’s needs, including relevant forms, explanation about the process, practical tips and referrals to legal and other providers.

Alaska’s Chief Justice Joel Bolger recognized the value of a legal access portal, particularly for those living in rural Alaska, to access important information about legal issues and services.  The court’s Access to Justice Commission applied to be one of the pilot states and was selected to help develop a proof of concept in 2017.  While we started working on the Legal Navigator about 2 years ago, the court system has been dedicating full time resources to the project for the last nine months as the need to program content for the guided interviews became apparent.  As this project involves artificial intelligence and natural language processing in ways that are new for legal issues, the development is very iterative, resulting in the need to be flexible and change approaches.  This is a time consuming, but exciting endeavor.

stacey-marz-photo.jpg

“Most legal issues coexist with domestic violence, poverty, homelessness, medical, mental health or substance abuse problems.  The Legal Navigator is designed to include referrals for legal and non-legal issues to more holistically address all underlying concerns.  We hope the Legal Navigator will empower people and those who help them to address their legal and associated needs.” – Stacey Marz, Director of Self-Help Services for the Alaska Court System

Who is Involved?

The Legal Navigator is a project of Legal Services Corporation in partnership with Microsoft, Pew Charitable Trusts and Pro Bono Net. The Alaska Court System is the project lead on the Alaska pilot, but there are many stakeholders involved – Alaska Legal Services Corp., United Way 2-1-1, the Alaska Bar Association, non-profit legal providers, non-profits involved with social services (homeless shelters, domestic violence programs, reentry services, disability advocacy, food distribution, substance abuse treatment), tribal and community health providers, behavioral health providers, municipal government, and public librarians.

Call to Action

Courts should consider legal access portals to open up access to information in a new way.  Automating self-help allows individuals to get comprehensive, relevant information that is convenient and accessible to anyone with an internet connection.  This may free up staff to provide direct services and address more complicated issues or help those who cannot access information online.  The portal may allow courts to expand who they serve and the subjects addressed.

Moving Forward

We are looking at this project over the long term, both in terms of including comprehensive content and how the technology will develop.  We are mapping all of the pathways legal issues can take from many different perspectives.  The goal is that the user should receive only relevant information and not need to sort through content to determine if it applies.  Using AI and natural language processing is new in this context and advances are happening all of the time.  We are likely just scratching the surface as to the potential.  Fully developing the Legal Navigator will take time.  Have patience and keep checking back as the project develops.

 

LSC Moves Forward with Legal Navigator Project

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and its partners are moving forward with the Legal Navigator portal following the completion of the machine learning system that will power it.

Legal_navigator_1

The Artificial Intelligence module at the heart of this learning system, new technology developed by Microsoft, will provide an interface that will allow people to describe their problems in their own words. The system will help them decide if it is a legal problem and, if so, how to solve it.

This is essential to meeting the goal of the project–establishing statewide legal portals to direct individuals with civil legal needs to the most appropriate forms of assistance available from legal aid organizations, the courts, the private bar, and community stakeholders.

Microsoft will continue to support the project with $100,000 in grants for additional technical assistance as LSC and its partners, Pro Bono Net and Pew Charitable Trusts, prepare the portal for piloting in Alaska and Hawaii.

Legal Navigator is a vital piece of the strategic plan these states developed as part of their Justice for All initiatives seeking to provide some form of effective assistance for 100% of people with a civil legal problem. The courts, legal aid programs, and the private bar are working together on these efforts to provide people with a wide range of options, from self-help to full representation.

For the pilot period, the states will provide content and forms to assist people with legal problems in three major areas: family, housing, and consumer. Social services organizations in each state are participating so users of Legal Navigator can find help with more than just legal issues.

JSandman

Legal Navigator is a centerpiece of the vision that emerged from LSC’s Technology Summit several years ago–a vision that uses technology to provide some meaningful help to everyone with an essential civil legal problem and ensures that no one is ever turned away with no help at all,” said LSC President Jim Sandman. “LSC is grateful to Microsoft for its substantial investment in this project. We are committed to implementing the technology Microsoft has so generously developed–not only in Alaska and Hawaii, but in other states as well.

*Originally Published on the Legal Navigator Home Page

Milestone reached: AI at heart of Legal Navigator complete, will connect people with legal resources

Author: David A. Heiner, Microsoft Corporation

We live in a highly legalistic society, and we have no shortage of lawyers. But the allocation of lawyers to the range of legal problems people face is, to put it mildly, uneven. Those with money can hire lawyers, and those without cannot. Without a lawyer, people are left to navigate our complex legal system on their own. This hits working-class people hard, and can be devastating for low-income people, who may face the loss of a job, or a home, or even custody of their children, if they are unable to represent themselves effectively.

One challenge people face is simply finding accurate information relating to their legal problem. Legal aid resources are highly fragmented and legal rules and procedures vary from state to state and even county to county.  Simple web searches often fail to yield accurate information regarding the particular legal situation someone is confronting. This is why legal aid leaders and technologists came together in 2014, under the guidance of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), to ask whether technology could help address this challenge. They imagined a web service that, through a pre-programmed script, would ask users questions and, on the basis of their answers, direct them to the right legal resources.

Fast forward just a couple of years — technology moves fast! — and we could imagine a system that would largely dispense with the pre-programmed scripts, enabling richer, more natural, and ultimately far more helpful interactions with users. We could imagine a system that would enable people to describe the problem they are facing in their own words, a system that would understand the user’s meaning (and not simply look for keywords, like a search engine), a system that could learn from interactions with users how best to help them navigate the legal system.  The magic ingredient: Artificial intelligence (AI).

Our eagerness to explore whether AI could help people who cannot afford a lawyer is why Microsoft and Pro Bono Net partnered with LSC in 2016 to build an AI-based “Legal Navigator.” Since then we’ve enlisted the Pew Charitable Trusts and Avanade to join the effort, partnered closely with legal aid and court personnel in our pilot states, Alaska and Hawaii, learned from focus groups with potential users, and developed a prototype of the system.

Today we’re pleased to announce a significant milestone in the development of Legal Navigator: The machine learning system that will power Legal Navigator is complete. Drawing on recent advances in natural language processing, Legal Navigator will provide a chatbot-like interface that will enable people to engage in conversation with the system and be directed to the right legal resources for the situation they face. Like other AI-based systems, Legal Navigator will get “smarter” the more it is used. Over time the system will even learn to understand colloquialisms and slang. And the more it is used, the better it will get at referring people to pertinent online information, to legal aid providers and to self-help systems where users can prepare their own legal filings.

For me, the most exciting aspect of this system is that it is designed as a platform that can benefit the entire legal aid community. The system is “extensible,” meaning that anyone (courts, legal aid providers, online legal document assembly providers) can plug in to add new capabilities to the system and enable a complete solution for users. (In addition to programmatic access through well-defined programming interfaces, the heart of the system — the AI that powers it — is available as open source on GitHub, one of the leading sites for open-source software development projects.) And, like other cloud-based technology platforms, the system is highly scalable. At relatively low cost, the system could be deployed in dozens of states or every state (and as more people used it, that would make the system smarter still).

Of course, we’re a long way from that today. But the AI module is complete, and our partners will now begin the next phase to prepare the product for initial testing in Alaska and Hawaii. Microsoft will continue to support the project as it moves forward by providing $100,000 in grants to be spent over the next two years on additional technical assistance for Legal Navigator.

It will be fascinating to learn how an AI-based solution can help people navigate the legal system. If you are in the legal aid community, please stay in touch with this project so we can collectively explore how best to deploy technology to address the access to justice gap.

Heiner also chairs the board at Pro Bono Net, a national nonprofit dedicated to leveraging the power of technology and collaboration to bridge the justice gap.

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.

2018 Hawaii Access to Justice Conference: Fighting for Access to Justice for All

Written by: Kara Doles

Kara Doles is Legal Aid Society of Hawaii’s Technology Project Coordinator, and has been working with the Microsoft, LSC and Pro Bono Net teams on the Simplifying Legal Help portal pilot in Hawaii. Hawaii was selected as a pilot project because of their demonstrated track record in establishing new and collaborative resources for meeting civil legal needs; their embrace of technology’s potential to expand access to legal assistance; and their vision of partnering with allied non-legal networks such as social services, public libraries, and health care institutions to help people identify and resolve their legal issues and related social needs. Learn more about why Hawaii was selected in our previous post.

Prior to her work on the portal project in Hawaii, Kara served as an AmeriCorps Advocate with the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii’s Intake Unit and Center for Equal Justice after earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in French language and Philosophy (law and ethics focus) from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. In this piece she discusses her experience at the Hawaii Access to Justice Conference in 2018.

Conference attendees comprised of lawyers, non-attorney advocates, judges, court staff, government officials, social service providers, and community members came together to be invigorated and inspired by the 2018 Hawaii Access to Justice Conference, “Fighting for Access to Justice for All,” held on June 29 at the William S. Richardson School of Law. Sponsored annually by the Hawaii Access to Justice Commission, this conference offered a unique forum of engagement around initiatives and programs that aim to expand access to the civil justice system.

IMG_5952

The Hawaii Access to Justice Commission was established in 2008 by the Supreme Court of the State of Hawaii in response to the findings of representatives from several legal organizations concerning the unmet legal needs of Hawaii’s low and moderate-income residents. Among other notable conclusions, it was determined that significant barriers to obtaining legal assistance in Hawaii, in addition to an inability to afford an attorney, include language and cultural barriers, lack of knowledge of one’s legal rights, lack of knowledge of available legal services, and difficulty in accessing legal services programs.

Friday’s conference atmosphere buzzed with eager and hopeful change agents who devote their life’s work to “making music with what is left.” This analogy was brought to life by Rachael Wong of the Department of Human Services in her session, “Collaborations and Innovation for Equal Justice” during which she emphasized two ways to reach more people and extend scope: 1) Partnerships with new allies; and 2) Use of Technology. Amidst a group of people who collectively want to make progress in this area, there always remains the question of “Where do we go from here?” Rachael suggests connecting and collaborating with new partners such as libraries, folks in the health care industry, and navigators in the community. Additionally, she stressed the importance of leveraging resources and getting more impact for existing resources through the use of technology and creation of online options.

IMG_5958

The one day conference covered topics including Worker’s Rights for the Low-Income Employee, Sexual Harassment and Access to Justice, Access to Justice for Immigrants, Technology in Mediation, Expanding Civil Access to Justice in Prisons and Jails, and Ensuring Access to Justice with the Revival of the Hawaiian Language. Attendees were also very excited to learn about the Legal Access Platform’s progress and future plans in the session, “Incubating Innovation in Access to Justice through Technology: The Microsoft Legal Access Platform” where panelists Nalani Fujimori Kaina, Executive Director of Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, Carly Ichiki, Lead Project Manager at Microsoft, and Suzanne Brown-McBride, Consultant with Pew Charitable Trusts discussed and clarified the platform’s objective. Session attendees were fortunate to hear three different perspectives, and discover how this project is truly a collective effort of many players working to merge the legal and technology worlds together. Participants were especially intrigued about the artificial intelligence and machine learning elements, and raised questions about cultural language nuances (“pidgin”), access for LEP persons, and the platform being a trusted source. All things considered, panelists received overwhelming positive feedback on how the advent of this tool symbolizes a remarkable milestone in educating and empowering pro se litigants across the Aloha state.

This project has been of significant and ongoing interest to the legal, social, and human services communities in Hawaii as it promises to produce a resource critical to solving multi-dimensional legal issues affecting the most vulnerable in the state. The 2018 Access to Justice Conference attendees left the day feeling more hopeful, connected, and encouraged to keep charging forward as Hawaii leads the nation in making access to justice a reality for all people to another level.

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