There are over 4,000 online forms on LawHelp Interactive, the largest national online document assembly platform designed specifically to meet the needs of low-income communities and the legal aid providers that serve them.
Forms are available in various areas of law and for a range of audiences. By and large, family law is the area with the greatest number of interviews posted and documents assembled. For example, in looking at the most recent quarter of statistics, from June to September 2014, 135,459 interviews were done in the family law area (excluding guardianship/conservatorship), compared to 12,408 housing forms, another area of great need for help and forms.
However, when diving in and looking at the numbers more carefully, it is striking to see that there are not a lot of domestic violence pleadings posted in LHI. This comes as a surprise, since all states have a uniform domestic violence form instead of forms that vary county by county, and the many benefits to survivors of being able to ask for protection from outside a courthouse from safe locations..
Divorce forms account for approximately 40% of resources and assemblies in LHI. Divorce and separation and annulments, including debt relief make up about 54,000 of all the assemblies during this period (out of 135,549 totals). Compared to this, DV form assemblies (at 19,214) make up only 14% and pale in comparison. However, when diving in and looking at each state, there are some states that are having enormous success in the utilization of their DV and protection online forms; in these states the courts have whole-heartedly embraced online forms as part of their self-help strategies online and in brick and mortar self-help centers.
In New York, the NY Courts through their DIY form initiatives are seeing good use of their online form interviews that help survivors obtain protection orders. In fact, in New York DV protection order document creation via LHI is almost at par with Divorce/Separation/Annulment. In New York, 4391 Orders of Protection were created from June to September 2014. This success is mostly due to the e-filing initiative that was piloted out of the Bronx County self-help center which has now expanded to all judicial districts in New York and is part of a collaboration between Safe Horizon, Pro Bono Net, and other partners to make the forms available to survivors at self-help center with the assistance of trained advocates.
In Minnesota, also the home of an innovate e-filing project, a 1,612 forms were created for DV survivors in the 3rd quarter of 2014. In August 2014, the Minnesota Courts restarted an e-filing pilot that allows survivors to file DV protection requests through the Minnesota MyCourts page. This pilot recently won a State Innovation Award from the Humphrey School of Public Policy. Over 680 harassment petitions and orders for protection have been filed at the Hennepin County self-help center through the pilot.
Another state that is seeing great utilization of online forms is California. In California, the courts are using online forms in self-help centers that provide services in person with the Riverside Self-Help Center providing assistance online. During this period, over 6,700 DV assemblies were created (34% of all family law documents created across the state). The bulk of these assemblies come from Riverside County. In January 2014 they started making the online forms available for filing through faxing using the LHI platform to let survivors access the forms online from safe shelters, police departments, and other locations. Part of this volume is also explained by the partnership between Neighborhood Legal Services in Los Angeles and the LA Superior Courts through the Domestic Violence Self-Help Assistance project (DASH)—which has been allowing survivors to create protection orders and file them in person at over 5 self-help centers for years.
The benefits of providing online DV forms are many. DV forms are a natural form to automate given that as mentioned before there are statewide DV forms available in each state. So instead of having to create county-by-county forms—a legal aid or court wanting to automate a form could create a statewide form with the same level of effort. Once a form is available online either through select self-help centers or survivors assistance projects, the form could be e-filed from any safe location, as NY courts and Minnesota Courts are doing. For survivors, who generally are working under difficult financial conditions, often are afraid of running into the abuser in person, and might be trying to protect their children, and keep their home safe while living in danger, avoiding the trip to the court is an amazing improvement. They can ask for their protection form from a shelter (as they do in Idaho, Los Angeles and surrounding counties and Riverside), they can do it a police station with the help of a trained officer or with the help of survivors services, or at a DOJ Justice Center (as they do in Los Angeles), or they can do it from a library, or a virtual self-help center, as they do it in Arkansas or Washington State.
October is DV awareness month. Legal nonprofits and those working on Access to Justice need to consider making easy-to-use online DV pleadings available to their communities. Working with courts to accept the pleadings produced, and promoting the forms so that shelter workers, and other survivor advocates can access the forms and help survivors complete them, can go a long way in protecting a life. Survivors should not be required to take time off from work and spend an entire day to get the benefits of a protection order. Access to Justice should be reachable from anywhere at anytime, including after hours. Incorporating e-fillable self-help friendly forms into survivor advocacy projects and working in partnership with providers that already work with these groups, including civil legal aid non profits, will go a long way in removing some of the difficulties and barriers when they need to figure out how to protect themselves, their children, and their homes.