May 2015

 

Xander Karsten
LawHelp Program Coordinator Xander Karsten

 

 

Each year I and a cadre of Pro Bono Net staff have the privilege of attending the Equal Justice Conference.  It provides a time to connect in person with partners and community members, share innovative projects, and meet new people from across the country.  This is my fifth EJC, and watching themes emerge, morph and change remains one of my favorite parts of the conference. Below are a few of these themes from this year’s conference from a technology minded perspective.

 

Going Where Clients Are

Whether it is collaborative justice models, taking legal services to the suburbs, expanding pro bono engagement to nontraditional partners, or bringing on development staff to explore additional resources this year the traditional themes of engaging clients continued to evolve as the conversations and the tools also evolve.  No where is this more true than in the technology-enabled access to justice sphere, where sessions focusing on reaching out to client populations through websites, videos, SMS campaigns and other methods joined sessions exploring virtual legal clinics and innovative partnerships to  continue the dialogue focused on delivering information and services into the hands of those who need it most.

Once you’re there- Know how to engage!

This year, more than almost any other in my memory, workshops focused on a variety of cultural competency needs and lessons, and explored the needs of different client populations to integrate into our approaches. This is true in the in-person and online contexts, and this year’s session line-up reflected the unique needs in both these arenas.

Don’t divide and conquer- Identify and unite

This year, more than any other, the inner workings of decentralized collaborations seemed to be on everyone’s mind.  These types of collaborations, where each partner is encouraged to play to their strengths and rely on others whose strengths complement their own, have long provided a staple of direct services collaborations, and continue to move to online spaces and partnerships.  This was crystallized in the phenomenal keynote address by the Department of Justice’s Access to Justice Initiative Director, Lisa Foster when she posited:

We need to assess our community’s strengths and weaknesses and then coordinate and integrate services.  We can’t afford to be duplicative or competitive.

These word have never been more true in direct services, national strategy, and in our next steps to implement technology-enabled solutions to address the needs of low-income individuals. The full text of this speech can be found at accesstojustice.net at  http://accesstojustice.net/2015/05/08/doj-atj-initiative-director-lisa-foster-keynote-at-equal-justice-conference/ with a great blog by Richard Zorza focused on this keynote and other aspects of EJC.

These are just a few of the many themes heard around EJC this year.  As always, it was a great conference with great conversations, and we are all looking forward to Chicago in 2016!

 

Press Release Posted on May 6, 2015  (http://bit.ly/1EH4D3K)

New York, NY (May 6, 2015) – For victims of rape, assault, and sexual assault who go to court without an attorney, just navigating the court system can be daunting, never mind understanding complex court orders. Roadblocks intensify for those with low English proficiency. Thanks to the efforts of nine legal services and nonprofit organizations, new resources have been created and have shown their ability to improve outcomes for low-income and Spanish-speaking litigants in courts in Texas and California.

Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid (TRLA) and Pro Bono Net led this effort, funded by the Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grant program, which creates court orders in plain language and Spanish and as a result, provides low-income and limited-English court litigants and opposing parties with greater clarity and understanding about what the order includes and requires. This way, victims are protected and the other side can better understand how not to break the order. The two sites chosen for the project, Austin, TX and Sonoma County, CA both have significant and growing Spanish-speaking populations. Across the country the percentages of households speaking languages other than English at home are growing, and courts have had difficulty providing translated orders.

In Texas, automated forms are used by victim’s advocates and the Travis County Attorney’s Office to ensure that forms are clear and easy to understand. In California, the forms give appointments and instructions to custody litigants starting a case, explaining what to do next and where to show up for their next hearing. In both states, the forms are powered by LawHelp Interactive (LHI), an award-winning online national online document assembly platform in use in over 40 states. LHI is a program of Pro Bono Net, a national nonprofit working to increase access to justice through technology.

“The innovations driven by this project help to protect those most vulnerable. No one should have their security and safety threatened because they cannot understand complex court orders,” said David Hall, Executive Director at TRLA.

The partners set out to show that an increased understanding of court orders would lead to less violations and lower no-show rates. This would improve judicial effectiveness in already busy courthouses.  More importantly, it would result in better protection to victims and their children in the long-term. An evaluation completed in 2014 by NPC Research found positive results at both testing sites, as orders were routinely issued in both languages, a feat that otherwise would have an incredible cost to the states. More importantly, in Travis County, Texas, plain language forms reduced contempt filings in sexual assault, domestic violence and stalking cases, helping protect victims. Additionally, this saves precious resources, including police department engagement, jail time, and additional shelter resources.

“Domestic violence orders are very specific, and they are critical to protecting a victim’s safety. If the person restrained, or the victim, cannot read and understand the order after they leave the court, the order is ineffectual. This project demonstrates that plain language and translated copies can go a long way in ensuring orders are followed, victims stay safe, and courts don’t waste valuable resources issuing orders that won’t be followed,” said Richard Zorza, an attorney and consultant on access to justice issues for over 15 years.

To date, this project is the largest and most ambitious online forms project with a multilingual component ever done in the LHI system. LHI’s technology automatically produced the plain language orders in English and translated custom copies to Spanish when individuals completed an interview.

“The Legal Services Corporation (LSC), through its Technology Initiative Grants program, has made many strategic investments in access-to-justice technology. Since 2010, LSC has invested almost $1.5 million in language access technology to improve access to justice regardless of national origin. We are very pleased to support this project, which uses the national online form capacity provided by LawHelp Interactive (another LSC-funded project). The outcomes show that when Spanish-speaking litigants receive an order and instructions they can understand, they are significantly more likely to benefit from the order,” said Jim Sandman, President of LSC.

The nine partners in the project were Pro Bono Net and its LawHelp Interactive program; TRLA; the Travis County Law Library and County Attorney in Austin, TX; Sonoma County court staff; Transcend; and the Self Represented Litigation Network forms group. The evaluation was done by NPC Research, and the forms automation done by Capstone Practice.

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About Pro Bono Net

Pro Bono Net is a national non-profit organization, founded 15 years ago, dedicated to increasing access to justice for the disadvantaged. Through innovative technology solutions and expertise in building and mobilizing justice networks, Pro Bono Net transforms the way legal help reaches the underserved. Today, we work with a broad network of access-to-justice partners to close the justice gap.  Our comprehensive programs, including www.probono.net, www.lawhelp.org and www.lawhelpinteractive.org, enable legal advocates to make a stronger impact, increase volunteer participation, and empower the public with resources and self-help tools to improve their lives. For more information, visit www.probono.net.