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.

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.

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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.

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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

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

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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.

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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.