At the recent CodeX event, one panel discussed how new attitudes, not just new tech, are needed to improve citizens' access to our nation's court system
STANFORD, Calif. — Identifying the problem with citizens’ ability to access today’s courts is rather simple. As Mark Chandler, former Chief Legal Officer of Cisco and now Fellow at Stanford Law School, puts it: “We have a system of Balkanized courts and not scalable solutions that result in court inefficiency.”
However, identifying the answers to that problem remains much tougher. Those at Stanford Law School’s 2023 CodeX FutureLaw conference presented some ideas — but ultimately, they said, those solutions may need to be technological, regulatory, and even psychological in nature.
The problem with tech
A session at CodeX, titled A New Era in Court Process Automation, brought together leaders from a number of technology companies and governmental organizations who were looking to make access to court systems easier. For panelist George Simons, whose company SoloSuit aims to help those facing debt lawsuits file in court more easily, the issue to tackle is twofold. First, is the need to address a court system that is bad at notifying parties of developments in a lawsuit. In many cases, those facing debt suits don’t even realize there is a complaint against them until they’ve already lost due to never actually seeing the complaint in time, Simons noted.
Then, even if they are notified of the complaint, a non-unified court system makes even submitting their response difficult. And scaling up a technology business to automate the debt form filing process is nearly impossible, Simons explained, because each court has different forms to fill out, and often the bureaucracy of the court moves slowly.
“To deal with the court, we have to print everything on paper and file it with the court by USPS,” Simons said. “Then once we send the file to the court, it goes dark.”
Panelist Noella Sudbury, Founder and CEO of Rasa Public Benefit Corporation, has found the same in her start-up that works to allow individuals to expunge their criminal records. Although 20 million to 30 million people in the U.S. are eligible for some sort of record clearance, only 10% actually make it through the process, Sudbury explained. Technology can help to a point, she added, but “we can’t speed up the government. …Very quickly it becomes very, very confusing to try and get through this process.”
One of the legal technology companies that has been able to scale up more quickly is Rocket Lawyer, but CEO Charley Moore, another panelist, said the main reason is specifically because the company deals with a lot of forms that don’t need to be filed to the government — contracts and personal legal documents among them. But when Rocket Lawyer has ventured into forms that necessitate dealing with government agencies, like submitting incorporation filings, “that is a more costly business… every time the government gets involved, the cost goes up and up and up.”
Finding the difference
Panelists noted that changing this problem isn’t a “red or blue [state] issue,” as Stanford Fellow Chandler put it. However, starting change is a matter of strong leadership, as well as changing mindsets in 50 different U.S. states that all have their own way of operating.
Moore agreed. “I don’t see much opportunity in this political climate for legislative solutions,” given that courts usually aren’t a pressing issue for legislators, he said., adding, however, he does see some progress in form standardization in states such as Nevada. Moore also noted the U.S. Supreme Court could even step in and make rules, similar to its actions around attorney advertising, though this area is unlikely to be a high priority right now.
Ultimately, where the most hope may live is in states such as Utah and Arizona that have changed their unauthorized practice of law rules to allow technology companies to implement new solutions. The experience of those states has shown “that it does take leadership,” Moore noted. “It’s really in the interest of local courts and local agencies to really adopt these reforms, because it’s going to make their forms more accessible and lower the costs administratively.”
“We have a system of Balkanized courts and not scalable solutions that result in court inefficiency.”
Panelist Grace Spulak, Senior Court Management Consultant at the National Center for State Courts, noted there are already initiatives underway to get courts more motivated to make these changes. She noted that at their core, courts are not averse to technology. “Courts want to administer justice, and they want to work more efficiently and effectively,” she said, adding that it’s a matter of convincing courts that their actions will actually positively affect this change.
Sudbury also noted that it’s helpful to humanize the population that will be helped by these changes. “When I look at the national conversation,” she said, “it feels very abstract.” But in actuality, the criminal expungement world is very personal. She told the story of one typical client who was looking to turn his life around while in a substance addiction recovery program and wanted to clear his record. The problem was he makes $15 an hour at his job — too much for legal aid, but far too little to pay for a lawyer.
“I think if people see the people behind these stories, those are the types of things that are really going to move the needle and prompt people to take action and change what the law can be,” Sudbury explained. “I think we need more examples like this to emotionally impact the leaders in this area.”
As new technologies create unique solutions to the access-to-justice issue, more companies like SoloSuit, Rasa, and Rocket Lawyer will continue to emerge. But increasingly, the main barrier in their way will not be a technological one, but rather a need to find a way to actually impact a court system that has long seemed stagnant.
“The technology is here already,” Moore said. “What isn’t there is the political will to make use of those tools.”