After two days of retail shopping for bargains – Black Friday and Cyber Monday –#GivingTuesday is a day for giving back.  All over the country, and indeed the world, people are embracing this day as an opportunity to raise money for the good of the wider community. Pro Bono Net is using our #GivingTuesday Celebration to highlight feedback and stories from our users and volunteers.

You can get involved in one or more of the following ways:

Donate to the Pro Bono Net Family – #GivingTuesday is about giving back to our communities. Pro Bono Net is instrumental in creating technologies that promote access to justice for our most vulnerable populations. We are asking that people show their support for our work by making a tax deductible donation to help us fulfill our mission to bridge the justice gap.

Share your dedication on social media – All day on #GivingTuesday Pro Bono Net will be sharing feedback and stories from our users and volunteers. We are inviting our community to join us by sharing their stories and motivations! We are using the hashtags #GivingTuesday and #AccesstoJustice for the day.

Volunteer – We encourage any lawyers who can to volunteer with organizations across the country to increase access to justice for those who cannot afford representation. Start searching for opportunities to volunteer right now by using our searchable online Pro Bono Opportunities Guide or check out our “Volunteer Tools” page to learn about the range of online resources we have on probono.net to help mobilize and engage pro bono volunteers.

Across America millions have legal needs that are still going unmet. Being unable to afford an attorney can limit access to justice significantly. Through innovative technology solutions, Pro Bono Net empowers the public with information and self-help tools to improve their lives, equips advocates with the resources to make a stronger impact, and mobilizes volunteers to expand the help available. Along with a broad network of partners, our programs increase access to justice around the nation.

Pro Bono Net needs your help to bring access to justice to millions of Americans. You can give back by participating in our #GivingTuesday Celebration on November 28th. www.probono.net/donate

_____________________________________________________________________________

#GivingTuesday is a movement, built by people around the world, to celebrate giving of all kinds.  It is celebrated on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving (in the U.S.), Black Friday and Cyber Monday; this year it falls on November 29, 2016. This movement is the result of the collective power of a unique blend of partners—nonprofits large and small; businesses and corporations; schools and universities; civic campaigns in cities, states and regions; and families and individuals—to inspire people to take collaborative action to improve their local communities and contribute in countless ways to the causes they believe in. Everyone has something to give.  For more details about the #GivingTuesday movement, visit the #GivingTuesday website (www.givingtuesday.org), Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/GivingTuesday) or follow @GivingTues and the #GivingTuesday hashtag on social media.

There are approximately 5.2 million undocumented women living in and contributing to the United States, many of whom may qualify for immigration relief now or in the near future. The Migration Policy Institute predicts that women may be more likely to be eligible for DAPA, and many women who are crime victims or survivors of abuse and gender-based violence may already qualify for immigration benefits. However, many immigrant women continue to face significant barriers to accessing vital information and legal services related their immigration options.

Step ForwardToday, We Belong Together and the Immigration Advocates
Network (IAN), in partnership with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Pro Bono Net, and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, will launch Step Forward (www.womenstepforward.org), a new mobile accessible website for immigrant women and their families that provides tools, trusted resources, and the latest information needed to understand their immigration options and rights.

The story of Adriana Cazorla, a domestic worker living in Washington state, is a powerful example of
how access to legal status can make all the difference in helping immigrant women escape constant fear and control at the hands of their abusers:

“Before, I didn’t think that I had any rights because I was undocumented. For twelve years my ex-
husband abused me. He told me that if I called the police for help he would report me to immigration. Every day that I left to go to work I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to come home to my children. I didn’t know there were programs that could help women like me until I finally met a social worker who told me about VAWA. My children and I are safe now, but we will always be scarred by those twelve years of abuse and fear of deportation.”

Adriana CazorlaAt a time of increased vitriol against immigrants and confusion about the status of new immigration programs like DAPA, it’s vital that immigrant communities have ready access to plain language legal information and referrals to quality legal assistance. Step Forward‘s unique approach to both legal empowerment and mobilizing immigrant women represents a critical step in the fight against abuse, fraud and misinformation.

Step Forward allows immigrant women to take the first step towards understanding their immigration options and rights, including:

  • An online self-screening tool to help undocumented women assess whether they might qualify for various forms of immigration relief;
  • Trusted referrals to nonprofit legal service providers so individuals can access help and avoid fraud or misinformation;
  • Latest news and updates on Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) and the expansion of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA);
  • Information on what to do in case of immigration raids or other encounters with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE);
  • Know your rights information for immigrant workers; and
  • Resources for crime victims and survivors of abuse.

Please take a moment today to amplify this work, and the voices of immigrant women, by sharing this resource widely.


Immigration Advocates NetworkMatthew Burnett is director of the Immigration Advocates Network, a collaborative effort of leading immigrants’ rights organizations and Pro Bono Net, designed to increase access to justice for low-income immigrants and strengthen the capacity of organizations serving them.

 

Yesterday, LawHelpNY (www.LawHelpNY.org), a family of online legal information and referral Internet portals for low and moderate income New Yorkers, announced the launch of its LiveHelp chatting service for visitors to the New York State Unified Court Systems website, CourtHelp (www.nycourthelp.gov).  The LiveHelp service will allow site visitors  to chat with operators who can guide them to legal resources and organizations that may be able to assist them in their case. The initiative is a collaborative effort of multiple organizations working to create a more seamless and integrated help system for vulnerable New Yorkers seeking assistance with legal problems.

Since 2010, LiveHelp operators, primarily trained law student volunteers, have assisted individuals visiting the LawHelpNY website who are often facing serious legal problems, but can’t afford a lawyer. LiveHelp will now be available to visitors on the foreclosure pages of the CourtHelp website, primarily homeowners facing foreclosure, as well as tenants of buildings in foreclosure.

Overwhelmingly, homeowners in foreclosure cases in New York State appear in court without counsel, while 100% of the plaintiffs are represented. It is this disparity, as well as the potential devastating impact on families of losing their home in foreclosure, that led to the selection of this particular topic for which to offer LiveHelp assistance on the CourtHelp website. Visitors to the website can click the button (shown below) to access the service. The button is available on 10 foreclosure-related webpages on CourtHelp. An example can be found at the following link: http://nycourts.gov/courthelp//Homes/foreclosures.shtml.

Press Release Image LHNY

 

 

 

The project is funded by an LSC (Legal Services Corporation) Technology Initiative Grant awarded to Legal Assistance of Western New York. The initiative serves as a pilot to explore the effectiveness of providing real-time assistance to unrepresented litigants visiting the CourtHelp website to further close the justice gap in New York State Courts.

This project is a groundbreaking collaboration in the provision of assistance to unrepresented litigants, bringing together LawHelpNY, the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program, and Pro Bono Net. These organizations collaborated closely to launch the initiative – installing coding, developing operator scripts, and training LiveHelp operators.

“We believe that for individuals going to court on their own who face the very real prospect of losing their home, having the ability to make a connection with an individual who can help, even if it’s in some small way, pointing them to resources or information, can have a significant impact,” said Rochelle Klempner, Chief Counsel, New York State Courts Access to Justice Program.

In making LiveHelp available to visitors on the foreclosure pages of the CourtHelp website, LawHelpNY hopes to expand its reach to serve even more low and moderate-income New Yorkers, in particular those who are facing the dreaded prospect of losing their home.

__________

An article appeared today in the New York Law Journal about the project. You can view that article here on probono.net courtesy of New York Law Journal.

 

Mirenda

 

Mirenda Meghelli is the LawHelp Interactive Program Coordinator at Pro Bono Net, where she works as part of a team to support and grow initiatives using LawHelp Interactive, an award-winning national online document assembly platform operated by Pro Bono Net in partnership with legal aid, pro bono and court access to justice programs across the country. Mirenda has been spearheading the LawHelp Interactive rebuild project, along with Doug Carlson, Pro Bono Net’s Director of Technology and Operations.

 

LawHelp Interactive (LHI), Pro Bono Net’s award-winning online legal document assembly platform, allows low-income individuals without access to a lawyer to prepare their own legal forms online for free. It’s also used by volunteer attorneys, legal aid advocates and court staff seeking to work more effectively and provide innovative models of service delivery.

Thanks to grants from the Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grant program to Blue Ridge Legal Services and the Booth Ferris Foundation, Pro Bono Net has finished a complete overhaul of the current LHI platform that modernizes and streamlines the application architecture.

LHI-powered forms are being produced and used in court and legal aid office settings, at homes, shelters, and in public libraries, for remote legal assistance where advocates may be miles away from a client they are supporting, and in large group clinics where a number of participants complete forms simultaneously with advocate and volunteer support. The forms are available in over 40 states, and in many places available in multiple languages.

Released in April of this year, the rebuild platform promises to be a vast improvement, while still maintaining the previous system’s functionality. We interviewed Mirenda Meghelli, LawHelp Interactive Program Coordinator, about the LHI rebuild and her important role in the process.

 

Can you give me a brief background on LawHelp Interactive?Welcome page LHI

LHI became a project of Pro Bono Net in 2006 and since that time, the project has grown at a rapid pace – from 76,000 documents completed in 2007 to more than 509,000 forms completed in 2014. The LHI team maintains a national server where these forms are hosted.  We also train and support local legal aid, pro bono, and partner courts design the forms on LawHelp Interactive. Legal experts make the templates that are used to create the forms and documents with HotDocs and A2J Author.

The service is being used in ever more creative and compelling ways to empower self-represented litigants and increase the capacity of legal services and pro bono attorneys.  Interactive forms enabled by LHI are now used at remote court and law library kiosks, in online and brick and mortar self-help centers around the country, and in large group clinics. None of these models of service existed 10 years ago; however, this increasing activity is taking place on a system that reflects legacy architectural and software choices made almost a decade ago.

LawHelp Interactive increases opportunities for people to get justice on their own. It also improves efficiency for access-to-justice programs. LHI has grown quite rapidly in the past few years, and yet it was still running on the same technology. We definitely needed to upgrade.

How many states use LHI? Courts? How many users per year?

Over 40 states use LawHelp Interactive. In 2014, more than 509,000 forms we assembled on the LHI platform. We are used by courts, legal aid advocates, pro bono lawyers, volunteers and individuals from all over the country. Users can visit www.lawhelp.org, find their state and subject matter to see if there are available forms and they will be sent to LHI.  People are asked a series of questions, and then their answers are used to tailor their documents. They can use the site anonymously or create an account and save their answers. The site is used by legal aid advocates, pro bono lawyers, and people representing themselves. In some states, forms created by LHI can be e-filed to a court or fax and filed.

What was the need for the LHI system rebuild, and how did the project get started? And why now?

The rebuild started in 2013 with Legal Services Corporation Technology Initiative Grant funding to Blue Ridge Legal Services (BRLS) in support of the project. With all of the new ways that the LHI platform was being used, and the sheer increase in the number of users, it was definitely time to update the system. Working with BRLS, Marlabs, The Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction (CALI), as well as long-time LHI contractors including Capstone Practice Systems, Todd Pedwell and Associates, and Kaivo, we were able to rebuild the LHI technical infrastructure into a single technology stack creating a more reliable and scalable system. Internally, Claudia Johnson, Liz Keith, Mark O’Brien and the LHI tech team including Alice Pucheu, Kanchana Hegde, Greg Tenzer and Doug Carlson all contributed significantly to this project as well.

Can you tell me a little about your role in the project?

In consultation with BRLS, I’ve served as the program lead on the rebuild project where I worked with the LHI team and contract rebuild developers, Marlabs, to roll out the new LHI technical infrastructure. This involved participating in regular, sometimes daily calls, with developers and the technical team as the project progressed, handling grant and administrative aspects of the project, liaising with LHI partners who tested the system and offered valuable input, and working with the external and internal rebuild team to make sure we reached project goals.

It was really interesting and exciting to be a part of a rebuild of this kind. Our partners and end users utilize LHI to do important work and the system is a means through which access to justice can be increased.  This new platform better supports this important work.

Who else was involved in the project and what were their roles?

Many people have been involved in the launch of this project. Allison McDermott was the original program lead for the LHI rebuild and worked with Jim Wiegand, who previously served as PBN Technical Director, to scope out the project. Ahuva Shabtai, who served as business analyst for LHI, coordinated much of the project including overseeing the documentation phase before the development work began. Alice Pucheu, Pro Bono Net’s Project Manager, has also worked to move this project forward and has been the primary person supporting partners in transition to the new system with respect to LHI widgets, e-filing, and CMS integration projects. Claudia Johnson, LHI Program Coordinator, Mark O’Brien, PBN’s Executive Director, and Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net’s Program Director, have provided guidance on business/program aspects of the project and the LHI technical team and contract rebuild developers under the leadership of Doug Carlson, Pro Bono Net’s Director of Technology & Operations, were responsible for much of the development, testing, and troubleshooting of the LHI rebuild environment.

Longtime collaborators Capstone Practice Systems, Todd Pedwell and Kaivo also played an integral role in transitioning to this new technical infrastructure, and HotDocs Corporation provided invaluable technical assistance on key aspects of the new system and supporting current and new HotDocs interviews in the the rebuild environment Finally, LHI partners who provided feedback and engaged in community testing of the new system provided a tremendous help in the launch of this new system.

Beyond the rebuild project, LHI is supported day-to-day by a longstanding partnership between Pro Bono Net and Ohio State Legal Services. Together we have received generous support for our LawHelp Interactive program from the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grants program, as well as from the HotDocs Corporation.

What were the biggest challenges this project faced?

As part of the rebuild, we migrated an incredibly large volume of user and form data from the old infrastructure to the new one. Migration of data from any legacy system is always challenging as it involves ensuring that there is no corruption or loss of data during the migration.  In the case of LHI, this work has been complicated by inconsistencies in legacy data due to changes in validation rules over a 10-year period of operations. As a result, we needed to develop manual processes to analyze and resolve missing or malformed data required within the new system.  This challenging work affected the project timeline and project costs.

What are the top 2-3 differences between the old system and the new? Tell me about some of the new features?

Interview LHI 2While the plan of the rebuild was to replicate the existing system functionality with minimal enhancements, there are a number of differences in the new system benefiting the different LHI user groups. Notably, load balancing has been implemented with the new LHI system. This basically means there are three servers operating at once for LHI increasing reserve capacity and allowing the usage of the two other servers if one server experiences problems.

Another major difference is that LHI now operates as a unified technical stack & database. The old system’s architecture consisted of a number of distinct technologies maintained by different people. Streamlining LHI into a single technical stack and database makes maintenance and troubleshooting of the system much less complicated and improves the ability for LHI to integrate with other systems.

Finally, we introduced a more simplified uploading and updating process for forms developers to upload their content into the LHI server. This change was implemented given template developer feedback on the upload and update process over the years and during a rebuild focus group.

When did the new system go live, and how can I access it?

The new system went live on April 20, 2015 and can be accessed via www.lawhehelpinteractive.org. It is the same website address as before and old users are able to log into their accounts from the same location. To use the LHI platform, users can create an account which can be done from the main website page or complete an interview anonymously.

With all of the new upgrades to the platform, accessing and filling out the interviews is better supported for users in all of the 40 states utilizing the platform. Backup servers ensure that thousands of users can access the system at the same time and access their compiled documents based on their interviews quickly!

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.*

App Development

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.

Roll-out

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.

Future

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.

In April, in collaboration with the American Bar Association (ABA) and Polaris Project, Pro Bono Net unveiled the new Human Trafficking Legal Access Center. This exciting new initiative connects pro bono lawyers with non-profits who serve human trafficking survivors.

Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world. While the number of trafficking survivors in the US is largely unknown, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of US citizen minors are at risk of commercial sexual exploitation. 12.5% of endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2012 were likely child sex trafficking victims and 68% of global human trafficking victims are victims of forced labor.

Human trafficking survivors have a tremendous need for legal services, yet the complexity of their cases often prohibits pro bono attorneys from becoming involved. “There is still a lot of knowledge that needs to be gained about what human trafficking looks like,” explained Audrey Roofeh, Training and Technical Assistance Coordinator at Polaris Project. “The experience for human trafficking survivors might not be something a pro bono attorney is familiar with from other cases.” One survivor may have immigration needs, a criminal conviction, family law concerns, and more – easily too much for one attorney to handle. The new site eases these barriers and involves more pro bono lawyers in the human trafficking field.

The site stemmed from past ABA president Laurel Bellows’ keen interest in helping human trafficking survivors with their legal needs. As Bellows entered the final year of her presidency, the ABA sat down and looked at key collaborating organizations in the human trafficking field. They discovered that local organizations across the country were identifying the plethora of legal needs that survivors encountered but were often unable to provide legal assistance. “We saw that having access to a lawyer would be essential to survivors,” explained Vivian Huelgo, Chief Counsel on the ABA’s Task Force on Human Trafficking.

The primary purpose of the site is to serve as a matchmaker between lawyers looking to donate their time and service organizations looking for lawyers to help survivors. Both Roofeh and Huelgo also expressed additional goals for the site beyond the central matching services. “We want to promote the good practices of some of the great organizations that are doing this work,” explained Roofeh. Local organizations have made great strides in determining the best practices for helping survivors overcome a variety of obstacles and Roofeh hopes that these practices will now be shared with the greater community.

The site also highlights the need for more human trafficking service providers. In their research prior to developing the site, the ABA discovered both a lack of providers and available funding. The lack of experienced and dedicated attorneys prohibits more pro bono attorneys from volunteering in the field, as there is no one to mentor and train them on the complexity of human trafficking cases. The site is working to increase the supply of training and support, allowing more attorneys to get involved. A calendar feature on the site help people discover trainings held by partner organizations and the site will also connect people remotely to experts.

The site has excited the anti-human trafficking community due to its potential to increase awareness about this pressing issue and ability to help more survivors gain access to the resources they need.

In addition to developing new tools, sites, and solutions to increase access to justice, Pro Bono Net looks for ways to grow and adapt its programs to match evolving needs and leverage new technology. In that vein, over the past few months PBN Program Director Liz Keith and I have been hard at work with partners at Lone Star Legal Aid, the American Bar Association, the Legal Services Corporation, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, and Texas Legal Services Center to re-launch the National Disaster Legal Aid Resource Center at DisasterLegalAid.org. Working on the site has been one of my primary projects this year as a VISTA at Pro Bono Net supporting the organization’s work around disaster legal services. The re-launched site has some great new features, and working on the re-launch was an instructive experience.

The re-launched site builds upon successful web-based efforts following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and has been active since 2009. The three main portals for different core audiences (people in need of help, legal aid professionals, and pro bono volunteers) remain, and each portal includes relevant resources, guides, explanations, and links. For example, people in need of legal help can consult links on methods of assistance while legal aid professionals can use a checklist to guide them through establishing post-disaster operations. The site additionally continues to feature disaster-specific pages with the latest information on deadlines, hotlines, and specific assistance available.

All of that content is greatly enhanced by the re-launched site’s design. The new design is visually appealing and better facilitates navigation through the portals, with images from actual disaster response efforts supplied by LSC and others working in the field after disasters. The colors were selected to make the site more accessible to those who are visually impaired and all images now have associated text. Perhaps most excitingly, the new design is mobile-responsive. Mobile responsiveness is especially important because smartphones are increasingly being used to access information after disasters.

New features and content complement the improved design. A dedicated version of the National Pro Bono Opportunities Guide allows prospective pro bono attorneys to immediately identify how they can help after a disaster. The site also features a FEMA appeals tool, powered by LawHelp Interactive, which allows a survivor of any FEMA-declared disaster to easily appeal an adverse FEMA assistance decision. Legal services attorneys with questions about disaster response can use the site to submit queries to the Disaster Legal Aid National Advisory Group.

I had no idea how much work would go into the re-launch. Pro Bono Net and Lone Star Legal Aid, the project lead, worked diligently with a national stakeholder committee and web designer for months to make this vision a reality. For the new tools and features, we solicited disaster pro bono opportunities nationally and modified a FEMA appeals tool Pro Bono Net developed in 2013 for use by survivors of Superstorm Sandy. In addition, Lone Star Legal Aid led a content coalition of disaster legal services experts charged with identifying, curating and posting new content for the site, and quickly added resources about new disasters as they were declared by FEMA and shared news items about disaster legal response efforts. The re-launch effort was supported with funding from the Legal Services Corporation’s Technology Initiative Grant program.

When all was said and done, everything paid off. I’m very excited to join Pro Bono Net and our partners in publicizing the re-launched site and I hope it will play an important role in disaster legal response efforts. I am happy that in the future survivors and attorneys alike will have a central online hub – for survivors to access legal resources that can help them rebuild and recover, and for attorneys and advocates to better serve survivors and get them the access to justice they deserve.

Pro Bono Net recently partnered on a new site – www.olmsteadrights.org – that will inform a wide audience about the Olmstead decision and provide resources and information for self-advocates, family and friends of people with disabilities, and legal advocates alike. The project was spearheaded by Atlanta Legal Aid Society, in partnership with the Legal Services Corporation, National Disability Rights Network, and Pro Bono Net.

“Olmstead” refers to the 1999 U.S. Supreme Court case Olmstead v. L.C. The decision held that people with disabilities have a qualified right to receive state-funded support and services in the community when appropriate, rather than in institutions. It was a landmark disability rights decision that has impacted the lives of millions of people – both with and without disabilities. The new OlmsteadRights site launched just in time for the 15th anniversary of the Olmstead Supreme Court decision. The attention and events surrounding the anniversary served as a perfect launching pad for the site – driving over 400 visits on the first day.

Joseph Smiling
Read Joseph’s powerful story in the “I Am Olmstead” section (Courtesy of OlmsteadRights.org)

“Olmstead is the most important Supreme Court case for people with disabilities” explained Talley Wells, Director of the Disability Integration Project at the Atlanta Legal Aid Society. “It’s a very transformative decision and not enough people know about it. We wanted everybody to hear the stories of people living in the community and we wanted people to be able to take advantage of Olmstead.”

The implementation of Olmstead has been slow since the 1999 ruling, but increased significantly since the U.S. Justice Department prioritized and began enforcing the mandate in 2009. While there are bits and pieces of information regarding Olmstead on the Internet, OlmsteadRights will centralize this information in a cohesive site featuring case work, stories, and information on how to advocate for and enforce Olmstead.

The site is broken into three main sections: “I Am Olmstead” for educating the general public, “Self-Help Tools” for those with disabilities, and “Legal Advocacy Tools” for those wishing to use the law to advocate on behalf of their clients. According to Wells, the “I Am Olmstead” section has received the most enthusiastic response so far due to the powerful stories it features about the positive impacts living in the community has had for a wide variety of people with disabilities.

Cheri, another individual who shared her moving story (Courtesy of OlmsteadRights.org)

However, the team at Atlanta Legal Aid Society is most excited for the legal advocates section. “Helping lawyers provide Olmstead advocacy will have powerful implications” said Wells, “we’re excited to give legal services attorneys tools they can use to do Olmstead advocacy.”  There is a wide variety of areas in which Olmstead will be useful, ranging from special education cases to areas of elder law, as attorneys often lack requisite information on how to apply Olmstead to these situations. The legal advocates section will transform attorneys into more powerful advocates for their clients.

One of the most promising features of the site is the Olmstead Legal Outline. The Outline allows lawyers to see which cases are most similar to theirs, read about the developed law around the country, and access sample pleadings. There will also be a series of podcasts on the site to provide further background information. These resources will give attorneys a strong base to build their case, allowing for more efficient and successful advocacy. The website is also fully accessible and inviting for people with all different kinds of disabilities. “It’s important for all websites to be accessible,” explained Wells, “but even more important for a website for people with disabilities.”

While the legal outline will undoubtedly be very practical, the hundreds of photographs on the site are what make it truly stand out. “We had such energy and excitement in the self-advocacy community – people are really excited about the website and sharing their stories and pictures,” said Wells. These photographs and stories will help fuel the dissemination of information about Olmstead, and hopefully lead to even more stories of individuals thriving in their communities.

Diverse Group of People with Disabilities Holding I am Olmstead Signs

About the Series

Richard Zorza, one of the founders and leaders of the access to justice (ATJ) movement, recently received the American Bar Association’s 2014 Louis M. Brown Award for Legal Access’ Lifetime Achievement Honor for decades of work on behalf of self-represented litigants. Not to be outdone, the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators passed a Resolution of Recognition “express[ing] their deep appreciation to Richard Zorza for his thoughtful, unique, and dedicated service, loyal support and guidance, and for his unfailing commitment to improving the state courts of this nation, and the Conferences extend to him their best wishes for the future.”  Richard was at the Open Society Institute with Mark O’Brien and Michael Hertz when they formed Pro Bono Net, and had a profound influence on our founding and development. As we approach our 15th anniversary, we would like to extent our deepest gratitude and thanks for his tremendous guidance. I recently spoke with Richard, and we are excited to produce this four five-part installment from that discussion. Our second post covers the origins of the Self-Represented Litigation Network. And of course, read more of Richard’s always fascinating thoughts on his Access to Justice blog.

The SRLN Begins

One of the most important projects Richard has spearheaded was the creation and development of the Self-Represented Litigation Network (SRLN). As he noted in the previous episode, the 1999 Conference on Self-Represented Litigants was when the ATJ movement really began to accelerate. At that time, the Open Society Institute brought together various stakeholders (including Pro Bono Net, the National Center for State Corps, and the Legal Services Corporation) to discuss what would become the Technology Innovation Grants (TIG) program. In addition, the same group began discussing self-representation and identified six states where various parties might assemble to develop a long-term strategic plan for assisting pro se litigants. In 2000 at the first TIG Conference, they created a substantive agenda to guide their efforts moving forward.

After the conference, the group continued to meet and the SLRN informally launched as a website in 2001. Further conferences and funding followed the successful initial launch, and the Network continued to grow. Richard stressed that the first steps were very ad hoc and focused on bringing together stakeholders in states that did not have a dominant legal aid entity. Capitalizing on a growing recognition that groups with no collaborative history could and should work together, the founders of the SRLN sought to create a network that could work both in tandem and in isolation to assist pro se litigants. The SLRN would not be an arm of LSC, the bar, or the Courts, and therefore 1) it could achieve far more than any entity could individually and 2) no organization would feel as if it were receiving short-shrift. Thus, it developed into a decentralized network, rather than a command and control program that can quickly and easily adapt to individual situations across the country.

Bringing the conversation back to the present, I asked Richard what changes would make the biggest difference for self-represented litigants today. However, to hear his thoughts for the future, you’ll have to return next week for the third installment of this rapidly growing series.

My work on disaster legal services at Pro Bono Net has made me keenly aware of the barriers to access to justice that many Americans encounter. I’ve also become cognizant of the vast regional and jurisdictional differences in how courts accommodate participation by non-lawyers in the civil legal system. So when Mark O’Brien invited me to the launch of the Justice Index at Cardozo Law School on February 25th, I was equal parts curious and skeptical – could you really apply a uniform standard to measure civil access to justice in the United States? Long story short: the Index is an important tool for promoting understanding about the many different factors that affect how individuals experience access to justice and for measuring the progress that states are making to improve access. But it’s a work in progress, and I also feel it is missing a key measure of innovation in state law.

Cardozo Law School hosts the National Center for Access to Justice and was the site of the Justice Index launch

The presentation at Cardozo featured representatives of the organizations that collaborated on the creation of the Index: David Udell and Jamie Gamble of the National Center for Access to Justice, Ellen Rosenthal of the Pfizer Legal Alliance (who marshaled the efforts of Pfizer’s law firms to undertake exhaustive state-by-state research), Mondi Basmenji of Skadden Arps (who spearheaded her firm’s efforts), and Jeremy Perisho of Deloitte (which analyzed the raw data and developed the algorithms and visualization strategy to make sense of more the individual data points that make up each state’s score.) The Index measures state performance against four factors that define the daily experience of litigants in the justice system: the Ratio of Legal Aid Lawyers to State Poverty Population; Help Available for Self-Represented Litigants; Support for Litigants with Limited English Proficiency; and Support for People with Disabilities. The first category is a numeric count, whereas the latter three are calculated based upon the presence or lack of identified laws, rules, and formal policies in place. The four categories are then given equal weight in a composite index.

Two questions asked during a lively Q&A session that followed the presentation really stood out: how did the developers of the Index compare fundamentally different measures across states? And to what extend can the findings be interpreted? In answering the first question, David Udell acknowledged that, in order to ensure consistency, the Justice Index team could only evaluate whether states had rules in place to promote access and not assess how well states are doing to enforce (or to fund) implementation of identified standards. The Index, then, is still a measure of rules rather than the lived experience of access to justice. But Udell is (rightly, I think) hopeful that advocates will be able to use the Index to start a discussion about how to better measure progress in improving the availability of access to civil justice.

In answering the second question, Mr. Udell noted that among the key findings was that in many cases neighboring states, which spent similar amounts on civil legal services, performed very differently on the Index. Instead of looking at the Index as a way of comparing the composite scores of the 50 states, he said, advocates could look at how neighboring states fared as an indicator of innovations in state laws. Advocates can see the Index as establishing a road map for promoting reform in their states.

Ultimately, Mr. Udell said it best when he noted the development of the initial Justice Index is a first run at creating a resource that can be a force for change. He hopes that leaders in the access to justice community view the Index as an impetus for important conversations about what should be measured and how respective measurements should be valued.

Like the developers, I am hopeful that the Index will provoke a serious conversation about what individual states can do to improve access to justice, and that this conversation will lead to improved measures in future releases. Based on my exposure to the civil legal system here at Pro Bono Net, I wonder if the Index should place more weight on the relative number of lawyers and overall resources available to support access for people in poverty (even if performance on that measure is poor across the board).

I also agreed with Mark O’Brien’s observation that the Index needs to incorporate innovations in practice rather than simply the presence of rules. Possible indicators of innovation could include support for the types of pilot programs that Chief Judge Lippman has announced here in New York (to provide trained volunteer non-lawyers as “navigators” to assist self-represented litigants in court), or expenditures on technological innovation in the delivery of legal services. The Index may better encourage innovation if it rewards courts for taking risks, not just for making rules.

Together with many of my colleagues at Pro Bono Net I am very excited by the arrival of the Justice Index. (Aside from everything else, it is an elegant and attractive demonstration of what a difference effective data visualization can make in parsing complex information!) The Index makes clear to the public what many attorneys and advocates have long known – the civil legal system is broken and fails to serve those most in need. More positively, it highlights where and how progress is being made, so that others can replicate and expand on successful practices.