The Problem

In the weak recovery from the worst recession in nearly a century, many South Carolinians have found it increasingly difficult to make their child support payments and have sought modifications to reduce their burden. One study reported that 79% of non-custodial parents in South Carolina who are unable to pay court-mandated child support are unemployed. Failure to make child support puts the non-custodial parents at risk of criminal sentences and Andrea Loney, Executive Director of South Carolina Legal Services says that in particular “low-income and no-income parents face a huge threat of going to jail for nonsupport.” Unsurprisingly, incarcerated parents are less able to make payments and find it more difficult to be a part of their child’s life.

In addition, as their financial circumstances worsened, many custodial parents faced an increased need for support. The consequences of the Great Recession precipitated a situation where both custodial and non-custodial parents had substantive reasons to seek support increases or modifications respectively. Unfortunately, both parties have found it increasingly difficult to receive assistance from the courts and the legal community at large.

As the demand for modifications increased over the past half decade, budgetary shortfalls reduced the capacity of legal aid providers to serve those seeking support modifications. As a result, already understaffed and overburdened courts have been flooded with “poorly documented or incomplete fillings.” Consequently, South Carolina courts can now take six to twelve months to hear support modification cases.

The Solution

A private/public partnership of various members [1] of the South Carolina and national legal community set out to respond to this growing challenge. Two years ago, members of the partnership brought LawHelp Interactive (LHI) and to South Carolina. LawHelp Interactive is a national, online document service that enables pro se users to create their own court forms, while is “an award-winning website that makes it easy for litigants to find, create, use and submit forms.” LHI divorce forms have been phenomenally successful in South Carolina, with 93% of users reporting that they plan to print and file the forms and 88% saying they would recommend the process to others. Seeking to replicate this success, the coalition created an application that would produce standardized, automated, and court-approved child support modification forms.

The application is available on LawHelp South Carolina and on a new site dedicated to child support modifications. Users go through an interactive interview and their answers are used to create court-approved documents and forms that they can print and bring to court. After receiving their documents, applicants are presented with step-by-step instructions on what to do next. In addition to helping litigants, the programs lessen the burden on overworked court staff by providing them with correct and complete forms that can be processed quickly. With less time spent correcting forms, court staff is able to provide better services to more people.

“Everyone’s looking for a way to do more with less. We’re using LawHelp Interactive to do just that.” – Pat Muller, Information Technology Manager for South Carolina Legal Services

Modification seekers can now generate complete, court-approved forms in just 35 minutes. According to the partnership’s research, the application cuts three months off the time needed to create accurate pleadings. Gale DuBose, Esq., Project Director of Jobs-Not Jail and Legal Coordinator at SC Fathers and Families says that the forms “keep parents in control of their cases instead of depending on agencies” and expand access to justice by providing tools to parents who cannot afford lawyers: “with LawHelp Interactive, we’re helping the system to work the way it’s supposed to work for all.” The partnership’s LHI forms extend resources to indigent South Carolinians and demonstrate the power of technology to help close the justice gap. To fund their effort, the South Carolina partners sought Title IVD funding from the Federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, allowing them to standardize and automate court-approved forms. Pro Bono Net operates LawHelp Interactive in partnership with Ohio State Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Innovation Grants program, as well as from the HotDocs Corporation. Pro Bono Net produced a case study that illustrates the improved outcomes for litigants and reduced costs for all parties.

Glenn Rawdon, Program Counsel for Technology for the Legal Services Corp. says that the project, “is a perfect example of legal aid groups working with other non-profits and funders to develop projects that improve access to justice with easy-to-use, uniform forms as the cornerstone.” As we begin 2014, our community should keep these successful initiatives in mind as examples of what is possible from the successful use of technological innovation to augment the work of skilled lawyers.

Further Reading:

1. Project Partners: South Carolina Legal Services, SC Bar Foundation, SC Center for Father and Families, SC Access to Justice, SC Judicial Department, SC Department of Social Services, and Pro Bono Net