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.

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“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.