Simplifying Divorce Forms through Legal Navigator

Author: Mary Pascual, Access to Justice Tech Fellow

The Problem and the Goal

In order to terminate a marriage, parties must go through an emotional court process and file multiple forms, which may differ based on their circuit.  In Hawaii, there are four different circuits.  While all the circuits require basically the same forms to be filled in, it differs in the title of the forms, the way the questions are asked, the answers they want provided.  This causes confusion to parties trying to start the divorce process on their own.

In my project, I helped to simplify each circuit’s divorce forms into one, unified form.  The goal of the project was to simplify the divorce process for the parties so that they could terminate their marriage without a lawyer and to be accessible to everyone.  This goal was to be achieved through an online AI tool used to provide legal information to the public while also making a plan to fit their legal issue.  By creating a unified form, it makes it easier to create a single, simplified interactive interview for the entire state instead of needing to create different interviews for different circuits for basically the same form.  Therefore, the party will have an easier time through the process.

The ProjectMary Pascual A2J Tech Fellow 1

In order to complete the goal, I first had to go through the various forms of each circuit and compare them to one another.  In some forms, each circuit had the exact same information. In other forms, each circuit would either phrase their question or answer choice differently or put it under different sections, but it would be relatively the same.  However, in certain forms, a circuit may not ask the question another circuit asked or give an answer another circuit provided.  I noted each similarity and difference by making a table for each form.  In each table, the columns’ headings were the different circuit courts.  The rows were the different variables that the forms had.  In the table, I would write down word-by-word exactly how each circuit phrased their questions, answer choices, and information so that my supervisor could later determine if the information was materially different.

Once I looked through all of the forms, I worked on combining the different circuits’ form into a single form.  I did this by converting the First Circuit’s PDF forms into a Word Document with the help of Jenny Silbiger, the Hawaii Supreme Court Law Librarian and Access to Justice Coordinator.  From there, I would put in the different answer choices, subsections, or paragraphs that another circuit would have while adding comments of which areas were different from the First Circuit.

Once I worked on all of the forms, Nalani Fujimori Kaina, the Executive Director of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, reviewed the forms and marked which wording should be used in the combined forms.  For example, while the first (Oahu) and second (Maui, Molokai, and Lanai) circuit refer to the parties as Plaintiff and Defendant, the third (Kona and Hilo) and fifth (Kauai) circuit refer to the parties as Husband and Wife.  She explained that using genderless pronouns would be better.  Based on her notes, I created a draft for a single, unified form.

After that, I worked on creating tables for the different variables (or answers) the Plaintiff or Defendant will be required to put in each form.  I also created tables to show which forms had the same questions and answers in order to minimize the chances of the same question being asked while also helping the user in automatically filling in the answer.

The Next Step

There is still a lot more to do for the divorce portion on Legal Navigator.  However, hopefully, through this project, we can learn more ways to give the public simple, accessible legal advice in other legal issues.  For now, it’s a step in the right direction.

Mary Pascual A2J Tech Fellow 2Mary Pascual is a law student at Gonzaga University School of Law, class of 2021. She was selected as the 2019 Fellow for the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii as part of the Access to Justice Tech Fellows Program. She is a graduate of the University of Hawaii at Manoa with a degree in information and computer sciences.

Mary worked with Legal Aid’s Executive Director, Nalani Fujimori Kaina in the development of content for the Legal Navigator Project and Legal Aid’s “Schema Project” with the Legal Design Lab at Stanford Law School under LSC’s Technology Innovation Grant.

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.


“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.