In the latest "Tech-enabled A2J" column, Kristen Sonday says technology must be a part of any solution to help pro se litigants to better advocate for themselves
For many Americans, the thought of going to court alone is daunting. Yet, nearly 75% of cases have at least one pro se party, according to the Self-Represented Litigation Network. And now, with COVID-19-related legal issues continuing to soar and pro bono attorneys stretched thin, the number of pro se litigants is increasing.
Because there often aren’t enough lawyers to help, technology must be a part of the solution to help litigants better advocate for themselves.
While there are few companies solely focused on pro se work, their impact is immense. In particular, technology is essential for helping self-represented litigants understand the technicalities of court processes, navigate the actual experience, and prepare essential documents.
If you’re not a lawyer (and sometimes, even if you are), the rules of civil procedure can be complex and confusing, and it’s often hard to know where to start. In fact, these rules can be so complicated that even legal aid organizations like Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service have gone so far as to produce virtual trainings of specific courtrooms to familiarize their volunteer lawyers with local processes.
Once in, navigating a trial on your own can be overwhelming and sometimes even detrimental to the case’s outcome. “One day, I attended a small claims hearing where an elderly gentleman was helplessly shuffling through his unorganized evidence in the middle of his hearing,” recalls Camila Lopez, a lawyer and the Co-founder of People Clerk. “The judge quickly got frustrated, gave him half of what he was claiming, and moved on to the next lawsuit. Watching this happen inspired me to start People Clerk.”
Her company’s goal is to guide litigants through the California small claims process from beginning to end, and provide them the tools to prepare, settle, and litigate disputes. Using simple questions to automate parts of the process, such as court filings and evidence organization, the platform can help demystify the court experience. It also offers articles to supplement the litigant’s research and better equip them to manage their case in person.
While some justice tech founders approach problems from their perspectives as attorneys, others faced challenges in the system as litigants themselves and subsequently fought to make the experience better. Sonja Ebron and her co-founder, Debra Slone, are PhDs with backgrounds in engineering and information science, and “each had suffered abuse in the civil justice system until we learned to navigate it properly,” Ebron says. “We knew that people without our educational advantages would have even longer odds of being heard in court, so we decided to share what we’d learned.”
In addition to preparing pro se litigants for a potentially adversarial process in the courtroom, other initiatives have helped move e-filing processes online.
Their company, Courtroom5, is an automated legal toolbox for litigants handling complex matters like mortgage foreclosure, workplace discrimination, and medical malpractice. “Our technology tracks a user’s progress through their litigation and at each step provides them the legal information and tools — document templates, searchable case law, claims analysis — that is most relevant at that step,” she adds.
In addition to preparing pro se litigants for a potentially adversarial process in the courtroom, other initiatives have helped move e-filing processes online, such as MassAccess, developed by Suffolk Law’s LIT Lab, Greater Boston Legal Services, and the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute.
“MassAccess turns critical court forms that were previously available only as PDFs or on paper into beautiful, easy-to-use online forms,” explains Quinten Steenhuis, Clinical Fellow at Suffolk University Law School, adding that each online form walks a user step-by-step through a court process. “The forms are mobile-friendly, at a 6th grade reading level, and include help in-context. At the end of filling out the form, the user clicks a single button and the form is delivered directly to the court.”
By transferring old, resource-intensive filings into online help guides, pro se platforms such as MassAccess increase access to justice and the ease with which to file these forms — and they also help the courts themselves streamline their records. Hardcopy filings and in-person requirements were already barriers to low-income individuals seeking relief from the courts, so the ability to demonstrate the effectiveness of online formats is crucial to extending access to those in need.
The impact of these pro se tools are profound because technology allows them to be scalable and replicable, serving more individuals than ever before. “Technology is important because… it’s taken hundreds of hours of work, but now we can reach thousands of people who otherwise couldn’t access the court,” Steenhuis says. “There’s no real way to do that with one-on-one assistance.” So far, MassAccess has about 12 online forms completed across practice areas, and a few dozen more at different stages in the pipeline. Once released, these forms can be replicated across jurisdictions, and also used by law firms and solo practitioners who want to assist their clients more efficiently.
Taken together, it’s clear that these innovations can be a game-changer for access to justice, says Ebron of Courtroom5. “These tools for self-represented litigants will inevitably reshape the practice of law.”
People Clerk’s Lopez agrees. “In a few years, as this market evolves, it will revolutionize how non-lawyers normally solve legal problems and increase access to legal services,” she says.
The improvement in access to justice for self-represented litigants can mean anything from feeling more confident in navigating the court system, to feeling empowered to file the right documents, to changing the outcome of a case, and every tool that brings us closer to fair resolution has resounding implications on the justice system.