Earlier this year, Pro Bono Net partnered with JASA of Legal Services for the Elderly in Queens to develop a new web app that enables social workers to perform quick legal screenings for homebound and disabled seniors. JASA assists many at risk Queens seniors with their emergency issues, in particular housing, consumer debt, and elder abuse cases. However, many seniors are homebound or face significant obstacles getting to legal help and a courthouse. In many ways they personify the broader justice gap in America.
In January, Donna Dougherty, Attorney-in-Charge at JASA, heard about Chief Judge Lippman’s new Court Navigator program and joined the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York to work on a model creating a similar pilot for social workers assisting seniors and the disabled. In February, we partnered with JASA and began working with Georgetown law students in Professor Tanina Rostain’s course, “Technology, Innovation, and Legal Practice” to develop the app. Our Executive Director, Mark O’Brien, had been invited by Professor Rostain to teach the spring semester along with Kevin Mulcahy, the Training Director for Neota Logic. A generous technology donation from Neota Logic allowed the students’ app design to become reality.*
Before beginning the development process, Donna asked JASA’s social workers what they wanted and just as importantly what they did not want in an app. The social workers were nervous about crossing the line between providing support and legal information and giving legal advice. They are in a client’s home for a limited time so the app had to be easy-to-use, quick to identify potential issues, and provide concise and clear suggestions for action.
The other crucial consideration was practical – many of JASA’s clients do not own computers and/or do not have Internet service. Initially JASA and PBN looked at using iPads – they’re portable, user friendly, and can access the Internet over a cellular network. However, the team quickly realized that they could also be limiting and that making a more universally accessible app was a better use of resources. Thus, they settled on a web app! Social workers would carry small, lightweight laptops and use iPhones as mobile hotspots to access the app.
With these needs in mind and a budget of about $5,000, Donna and Pro Bono Net’s Adam Friedl began working with the Georgetown students in March and had a completed app by the end of Spring Semester. Donna acquired all the tech equipment within two months of starting the project and so the project roll out was ready to begin within 6 months of the start-date. Over the summer, the app, christened the Debt & Eviction Navigator (or DEN), launched.
As the roll out began, the social workers were apprehensive and in some cases resistant about using technology – some had never used a laptop or a hotspot. After a small amount of training however, they quickly realized 1) how easy the DEN is to use and 2) its massive potential to help streamline services and allow JASA to provide more holistic assistance. They can now give their clients information easily, quickly, and clearly. Most importantly they can help people who otherwise cannot access the court system.
Over the past several months, JASA social workers have used the DEN to interview over two hundred people. About five were homebound and had an immediate legal issue (e.g. they had a lawsuit pending against them in court). Without the DEN, these clients might not have known that their issue was pressing. Without the new navigator program, they would not have been able to access the court system.
After identifying that a homebound client has a legal issue, JASA brings the situation to the court’s attention and the client is able to access the justice system remotely. For example, the social worker can assist a client to file an answer online, verify their identity and intentions with the court via VoIP and online video calling, and then have their filing marked as “homebound” and sent to judges who are familiar with the new system.
Donna is really excited about the potential to use similar apps to increase access to justice for homebound and otherwise isolated Americans. The development process was fast, easy, and inexpensive. As providers and the courts gain experience they will be able to make more powerful and efficient apps in the future. Investments today will also decrease future development costs; iPads, hotspots, video conferencing technology only have to be bought once.
The combination of technological advancements and a court system willing to experiment enables gatekeepers – those with the most consistent contact with hard-to-reach people – to extend access to justice to often-neglected populations. Donna envisions apps that could help in foreclosure cases, disaster relief work (where computer access is often limited or non-existent), and with language issues. The DEN is just the first iteration in the exciting future of access to justice apps!
*Editor’s note: Michael Mills, President and Chief Strategy Officer of Neota Logic, is a Pro Bono Net board member.