A pilot program at the Riverside County Superior Court in California is allowing domestic violence victims to complete applications for Domestic Violence Restraining Orders (DVRO) online and electronic fax completed forms to the courthouse. I spoke with The Honorable Jackson Lucky about the initiative and the impact he has witnessed in the courthouse.
At Riverside Court, domestic violence victims are one of the highest risk populations, but victims often have trouble getting access to justice. Over 6,700 domestic violence cases are filed each year at Riverside, mostly by litigants without lawyers. The filings require individuals to draft a multitude of documents, forcing them to repeatedly fill-in the same information and leading to confusion and incomplete forms. A clerk must then spend time reviewing, rejecting, or explaining the forms to the applicant. The new system, spearheaded by Susan Ryan, Managing Self-Help Attorney for Riverside Superior Court, seeks to simplify the process for applicants and increase efficiency in the court.
Individuals applying for a DVRO can now complete their filings online through an Interactive Form Completion system enabled by LawHelp Interactive (LHI) and built using HotDocs software. LHI, a Pro Bono Net program, seeks to use technology to improve the legal form and document preparation process for low-income people and the attorneys who assist them. Comparable to TurboTax, the system asks users a series of questions that build upon their answers to the preceding questions. LHI automatically populates the repetitive fields on forms, such as name or home address, saving applicants time and increasing the accuracy of completed forms.
Another need the LHI powered forms solve is the lack of sufficient information being included in the pleadings. According to Judge Lucky, individuals often assume judges know more than they do and leave off vital facts and information about their case. He explained that a victim may make a conclusory statement, such as “my boyfriend is harassing me,” without further explanation. Harassing has many different definitions, not all of which qualify as domestic violence. The online interview eliminates the uncertainty of these situations by asking a series of specific questions about the situation such as, what happened just before the abuse started, what did the person say to you, did the police come. This information is then compiled into the form, allowing a judge to easily assess the situation.
After an individual has completed the interactive interview process they are presented with a completed form that can either be faxed directly to the court, or printed and hand delivered. Electronic fax filing, a system created by the court, allows victims to submit their forms quickly and efficiently from safe anonymous locations. Additionally, a fax filed application will arrive before a judge’s eyes faster than a document brought to the court in person, as it does not have to pass through a window clerk or be scanned into the court system. While the electronic fax system is certainly administratively beneficial and efficient, Judge Lucky stressed the importance of the LHI software.
The benefits of the online interview continue after the DVRO has been filed – regardless of how it was filed. Judge Lucky explained that it is much easier to review forms that were completed online. “I can count on certain things being consistently correct,” he explained. “It becomes more of a quick review for formal defects versus an extensive review that a document filled out by hand requires.” And of course, forms completed using a computer do not run the risk of being illegible. Judge Lucky also explained that the consistent format of the form allows him to more easily find the information he needs to review. He noted that he tends to reject fewer cases that are done through the online system for a lack of specificity, because the interview prompts applicants to supply enough information about the case. The praise for the system is not limited to the courthouse; users have been thrilled with its ease and simplicity. “This is a wonderful program,” reported one user, “the final product is perfect.”
According to Judge Lucky, this type of innovative system could be replicated in other courts and for other issues. “There is nothing special about domestic violence that makes this type of technology suited to domestic violence versus other types of filings.” He explained that the main impediment to implementing such programs, aside from cost, is the development process of creating an interview that comes up with the correct prompts to lead to well filled-out forms. “Programs like this are what make it easier for people that are forced to represent themselves in court,” he said. “Finding ways to use technology to make things more accessible should be an obligation of the court. Justice is becoming a scarce resource and we need to get more people access.”
Editor’s Note: Pro Bono Net operates LawHelp Interactive in partnership with Ohio State Legal Services Association, and with the generous support of the Legal Services Corporation and HotDocs, the global leader in document generation.