A staggering number of Americans experience violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. Domestic Violence Awareness Month (each October) shines light on this issue and provides information to victims as well as the public about tools and resources available.

Too often it is difficult for victims to access the justice system to get the help they need. Pro Bono Net’s LawHelp Interactive (LHI) is a useful tool for advocates providing assistance to victims filing protection orders. LHI is an award-winning online legal document assembly platform, which allows low-income individuals without access to a lawyer to prepare their own legal forms online for free. This past August, LHI put together a program to spotlight our partners who are using our technology in new and exciting ways that expand access to justice for victims seeking to file family offense petitions in Family Court.  Sara Sheikh from Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA), and Sun Kim from the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program discussed their respective programs

The Domestic Abuse Self Help (DASH) program is run by NLSLA in Los Angeles County, CA. Sara Sheikh is a staff attorney for Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County (NLSLA). She works at NLSLA’s Van Nuys Self-Help Legal Access Center located at the Van Nuys Courthouse. She began working as the Domestic Abuse Self-Help (DASH) attorney in early 2014. Her previous experience with assisting domestic violence (DV) victims was as a volunteer at these same DASH clinics. We were fortunate enough not only to hear from Sara and Sun during the LHI call, but also to ask them questions about their work.

Domestic Abuse Self-Help (DASH)

In 2006 the Neighborhood Legal Services of LA County began assisting litigants in filing protection orders in instances of domestic violence. It began with a series of clinics in which a volunteer could assist multiple litigants as they fill out the necessary documentation to file a petition. This included manually double checking that all of the relevant information was provided on the forms, which would then need to be physically printed and faxed to an outside volunteer attorney for edits and approvals. This process was time consuming and costly in manpower as well as physical materials. With the use of LHI, these forms are now more consistent and accurate and a volunteer lawyer is able to make edits, ask further questions, and provide suggestions digitally saving time, hassle, and money. We asked Sara to tell us a bit more about her role in the project:

What do you do in your current role?

As the DASH attorney, I train volunteers and supervise them in our DASH clinics, reviewing the paperwork they help prepare and answering questions they may run into while helping our DV litigants. On those days that we may not have enough volunteers, I also assist DV litigants in filling out their paperwork.

What do you think is most important for people to understand about domestic violence and the work you do?

People need to understand what is domestic violence, and that it covers more than just physical abuse. People also need to be informed on what options they have to find safety. We help DV victims protect themselves by petitioning for restraining orders, and we can only do the work we do because students and members of the community give their time at the clinics as volunteers to assist the public.

Tell me a little about the needs of the audience you are serving and maybe how many people you serve in day, week, year?

At the DASH clinic we help litigants fill out paperwork for DV restraining orders. Litigants who are suffering from domestic abuse, in whatever form it may take, come to us for legal help. Litigants look to our clinics to help them get the protection they need from their abuser. Volunteers and staff screen these litigants and then help them fill out petitions for restraining orders. In one month, on average, NLSLA’s three DASH clinics assist 200 people with their paperwork. This number does not include litigants who come in with questions to be answered, who just need the paperwork or who need referrals for further assistance.

How can technology play a vital role in connecting those in need to resources?

Technology is vital in making the information for those resources easily available online. People in need of help need to know how to define their situation, and what resources are available for DV victims to get to a place of safety. They need to be able to see that our clinics are there to help people fill out their legal paperwork. And that information has to be easy to find, which is something that I believe that court websites like the LA Court website succeed in doing.

The Domestic Abuse Self Help (DASH) program now has four separate locations that provide one-on-one guidance while completing the forms in the morning, and provide guide packets for those filling out the forms in the afternoons. They are well on their way to having a volunteer attorney devoted to each location both for assistance as well as performing the final reviews for all of the forms before they are submitted. A recent expansion of the program has made it possible for volunteers and attorneys to access information from various locations at the same time, allowing them to work more efficiently. The expansion was facilitation through additional volunteer recruitment and involvement from partners including Los Angeles county shelters and shelter advocates, and pro bono attorneys. The NLSLA clinics exist now in Lancaster, San Fernando, Van Nuys, and Pamona, with additional clinics being held at shelter partners in Santa Clarita Valley. Additional after hours clinics are held in Van Nuys, Topanga, and Devonshire Police Stations. All final documents are submitted directly to NLSLA from off site locations for a last review before being approved for filing to the courts, thus ensuring that all documents are fully completed and ready to be submitted even from off site locations and volunteers.


Advocate Family Offense Petition Program (NY)

The Advocate Family Offense Petition Program provides trained domestic violence advocates throughout NY with access to an online document assembly interview to help litigants complete petitions.  The petition information is then electronically transferred into the Family Court’s Universal Case Management System (UCMS). Launched as a statewide initiative in early 2014, following a successful pilot in Bronx Family Court, the Advocate Family Offense Petition Program is reducing barriers for individuals seeking protection from abuse. Additionally, the project is improving courthouse efficiency. The project demonstrates how technology can increase access to justice, streamline court processes, and create a better experience for litigants.

Sun Kim works for the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program and is the Special Counsel for Technology Initiatives.  According to Sun they like to call her an attorney-technologist. We asked Sun a few questions about work:

What do you do in your current role?

I do a lot of different things but mainly I program and maintain the court’s advocate assisted Hotdocs templates and the DIY Form programs (that’s what we branded our A2J Author/HotDocs templates for unrepresented litigants). I also maintain and code CourtHelp, the court’s website for unrepresented litigants.

How can technology play a vital role in connecting those in need to resources?

The great thing about the internet is that no matter what time it is or where they are located a litigant can get information and help. That help can be customized for the individual and their situation.

Similarly how can technology help you and your colleagues as you look to help clients?

Technology is a very cost effective way to help a lot of litigants, but it improves court efficiency and saves clerks time so that they can assist litigants who really need it.

During the LHI August call, Sun explained how this system works.

Advocates and volunteers must become members of both LawHelp Interactive and probono.net and request to be approved before being able to access the e-filing petition program. The program itself can be accessed from any computer via the internet by going into the Family Justice/DV practice area on probono.net/ny. At the moment, there are 140 Domestic Violence Advocacy agencies that have been approved for this program and litigants can go to their local court for referrals to local agencies.

Advocates access the program and walk the litigants through a series of questions required for the filing of the form. Once all of the relevant questions have been answered a word document is generated for the litigant and advocate to review before e-filing the information with the Family Court’s UCMS. The litigant will still need to go to the court clerk and file the official petition, where it is reviewed by the clerk, cross referenced to check for any other open cases involving the litigant, and officially activated. The litigant will be able to see the judge and receive an Emergency Order of Protection the same day.

The benefits of this program are clear. Forms are complete and accurate, and it save hours of time and energy for the court clerks. Advocates and volunteer attorneys provide assistance and walk litigants through filing the petitions from their own offices. Litigants are provided guidance as they file for their petition and are provided additional questions only when their answers require additional follow up. They are also able to receive their protection orders much faster as they are already in the system when they formally submit their petition. This project has been so successful that the New York Courts received the Legal Tech News Innovation Award for the Innovative Use of Technology in a Pro Bono Project category.

Leaving an abuser can be an extremely dangerous time for litigants. With these tools advocates can help litigants prepare their documents more quickly, accurately and efficiently. Pro Bono Net will continue to work with partners to utilize technology in order to increase access to justice for the victims of domestic violence.

Follow these links for more information:

Petition Programs:

LawHelp Interactive

NLSLA Domestic Violence Self Help Program

New York Court Family Offense E-filing Program

More Information on Domestic Violence:

Domestic Violence Hotline

United States Department of Justice

Sanctuary for Families

Her Justice

Safe Horizons