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.
Similar 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.
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.
Did 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.
- The Alaska Supreme Court and the Alaska Bar Association have embraced unbundled legal services to as a means to expand access to legal assistance, which other states are working to emulate. Coupled with triage and pro bono services, these efforts have had a significant impact on resolving contested divorce and custody cases.
- 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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org