Originally published by NYS Office of Victim Services

New York, NY (October 1, 2018) – The New York State Office of Victim Services today announced a new website connecting crime victims with information and free civil legal assistance is being piloted in three Western New York counties, allowing victims to learn about their rights and connect with resources or legal representation. Established using $1.5 million in federal funds secured by the state agency, the New York Crime Victims Legal Help website will initially serve Erie, Genesee and Niagara counties and will expand to serve crime victims Upstate and on Long Island by the end of 2019.

Continue Reading New York Crime Victims Legal Help being piloted in Erie, Genesee and Niagara counties

Pro Bono Net is teaming up with the Practising Law Institute to bring you a discussion about the access to justice movement and the role of pro bono in closing the gap with Honorable Jonathan Lippman and Pro Bono Net’s Executive Director, Mark O’Brien. Register now for this FREE presentation.

Achieving 100% Access: A Conversation with the Honorable Jonathan Lippman About Pro Bono’s Role in Bridging the Justice Gap is a one-hour discussion between the Honorable Jonathan Lippman, former Chief Judge of the State of New York, and Mark O’Brien, Executive Director of Pro Bono Net, on a number of topics related to the access to justice community and the roles of Pro Bono and technology in closing the justice gap.

Questions to be addressed include: how can pro bono effectively help meet the legal needs of the underserved? How should pro bono respond to emerging trends in the access-to-justice movement? What are – and how do we address – the limitations of the traditional role of pro bono in the access-to-justice movement? Register now for the one-hour briefing on June 5th.

If you are interested in additional discussions between Mark O’Brien and Honorable Jonathan Lippman on access to justice, please visit our website for highlights from our 2016 event A Conversation with Judge Jonathan Lippman.


Practising Law InstitutePractising Law Institute is nonprofit learning organization dedicated to keeping attorneys and professionals at the forefront of knowledge and expertise, as well as preparing them to fulfill their pro bono responsibilities. For more information about PLI’s pro bono programs and activities, please visit www.pli.edu/probono.

Several Pro Bono Net staff members will be presenting at multiple sessions on a variety of equal justice issues at the 2017 NLADA Annual Conference, December 6th-9th. NLADA brings together more than 700 equal justice advocates each year to participate in substantive workshops on topics critical to helping effectively meet the legal needs of low-income people. This year’s NLADA conference theme is “Safeguarding Justice for All.”

Pro Bono Net is a national nonprofit leader in increasing access to justice through innovative uses of technology and collaboration. Pro Bono Net’s staff is made up of a cross-disciplinary team from legal, technology, and community engagement backgrounds who are committed to finding innovative, sustainable solutions for expanding access to justice. Pro Bono Net will present on a wide range of topics, including innovative uses of online document assembly and technology to expand pro bono participation.

Staff attending the conference includes Mark O’Brien, Executive Director; Audrey Roofeh, Director of Program Delivery; Quisquella Addison, LawHelpNY Program Director, Claudia Johnson, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager; Mirenda Meghelli, LawHelp Interactive Program Coordinator, and Mike Grunenwald, Program Coordinator.

For more details on each workshop, please visit the NLADA website here.

Thursday, December 7

4:15 – 5:45 pm

Building tools for Self Represented Litigants: LawHelp Interactive and A2J Author

  • John Mayer, CALI
  • Claudia Johnson, Pro Bono Net

Friday, December 8

8:30 – 10:00 am

Urban Pro Bono Meets Rural Clients:  Remote Services Delivery Models in Action

  • Lillian Moy, Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York
  • Melody Harkness, Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York
  • Claudia Johnson, Pro Bono Net
  • Mike Grunenwald, Pro Bono Net

10:30-12pm

Big Ideas: The Future of Pro Bono

  • Sharon Goldsmith, Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland
  • Mark O’Brien, Pro Bono Net
  • Eve Runyan, Pro Bono Institute
  • Steve Scudder, ABA Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service

4:15 – 5:45 pm

How you can Leverage Online Forms to Enhance your Staff and Pro Bono Attorney’s Work

  • Lillian Moy and Melody Harkness, Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York
  • Neil Steinkamp, Ross Risius Stout
  • Courtney Smith, Veterans Consortium Pro Bono Program
  • Claudia Johnson, Pro Bono Net

 


National Legal Aid Defender Association (NLADA) is America’s oldest and largest nonprofit association devoted to excellence in the delivery of legal services to those who cannot afford counsel. They provide advocacy, guidance, information, training, and technical assistance for members of the equal justice community, especially those working in public defense and civil legal aid.

NLADA’s Annual Conference is the leading national training event of the year for the civil legal aid, indigent defense, and public interest law communities. The conference offers advocates the substantive information and professional skills they need to respond to the legal needs of low-income people, provides unparalleled opportunities to meet and exchange ideas with colleagues from across the country, and helps fulfill continuing legal education requirements.

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

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#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.

Statue of Liberty

This weekend as we celebrate our Independence Day, we should remember that our country was founded on the principles of freedom and justice. However, for millions of Americans access to justice is still beyond reach. Pro Bono Net seeks to increase access to justice through innovative technology solutions and expertise in building and mobilizing justice networks.

This May, the New York State Permanent Commission on Access to Justice at New York University School of Law held its fifth annual Law School Access to Justice Conference. This year the conference focused on the role of New York’s law schools in helping meet the essential civil legal needs of low-income New Yorkers. Michelle Born, LiveHelp Coordinator for LawHelp NY, attended for the first time this year and discusses her experience below.

Access to Justice Conference, NYU 2016As I sat in the auditorium full of law school administrators and legal service providers at my first Annual Law School Access to Justice Conference, I anticipated a long day of theoretical discussions about diversifying the profession and getting law schools more involved in access to justice initiatives in New York State. Imagine my interest and surprise when the first panel of the morning, comprised exclusively of women in leadership roles in academia, government, legal services, and the judiciary,[1] quickly turned to issues of implicit bias among judges and stereotype threat in classrooms.

Questions of racism, sexism, heterosexism and transphobia undergirded the discussion, even as the panel tackled such academic questions as how to preserve students’ interest in impact litigation amid the lure of the more immediate results of what is oft-termed rebellious lawyering.  (In response, panelist Suzanne Goldberg challenged the dichotomy, believing that these two approaches to social change are not mutually exclusive and that the interplay of the two are, in fact, the hallmark of most social movements.)

As we moved from the morning panel into working groups, we homed in on the more pragmatic questions of how to efficiently deliver legal services to underserved and difficult to reach populations, and how to best engage students in narrowing the justice gap.

Pro Bono Net’s work was prominently featured in several arenas.  In the small working group focusing on New Models for Cost Effective Legal Service Delivery, Leah Margulies of LawHelpNY/PBN highlighted as examples of such models three exciting ProBonoNet initiatives: LiveHelp chat service of LawHelpNY, the DEN (Debt and Eviction Navigator) application, and Closing the Gap.  Participating in the working group on Non-Lawyers Working to Help Narrow the Justice Gap, Niki De Mel, Pro Bono and Special Initiatives Coordinator for Pro Bono Net, and Michelle had occasion to discuss LiveHelp, DEN and other PBN initiatives while emphasizing the appropriate use of technology and non-lawyers in increasing access to justice, not replacing traditional legal services. To wrap up the day, ProBonoNet’s technical design work was on display as attendees were offered a preview of the online Handbook of Best Practices for Supervising Law Student Pro Bono Work.

As a newbee to the conference and the LawHelpNY/PBN team, I was energized by the dedication of the practitioners whose work we strive to support and the academics whose students we have the privilege to engage.

Michelle joined LawHelp as the LiveHelp Coordinator in September 2015.  She worked as an Immigration Attorney at The Bronx Defenders after receiving her J.D. from CUNY School of Law. Before law school Michelle worked in Arica, Chile as a social worker with Jesuit Volunteers International, and in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina as an International Development Fellow with Catholic Relief Services. Michelle also worked in grant-writing for Human Rights Watch and recruitment for Maryknoll Lay Missioners. Michelle holds a Master’s degree in International Development from Fordham University and a Bachelor’s degree in Social Work from St. Louis University. 

 


[1] The panel was composed of the following women:

Deborah N. Archer, Dean of Diversity and Inclusion & Professor of Law; Co-Director, Impact Center for Public Interest Law; Director, Racial Justice Project, New York Law School

Jennifer Ching, Project Director, Queens Legal Services, Legal Services NYC

Hon. Fern Fisher, Director, New York State Courts Access to Justice Programs; Deputy Chief Administrative Judge for New York City Courts

Suzanne B. Goldberg, Executive Vice President for University Life; Herbert and Doris Wechsler Clinical Professor of Law; Director, Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, Columbia Law School

Maya Wiley, Counsel to Mayor Bill de Blasio, City of New York

Karen S. Levy

Karen S. Levy, Director of Global Technology at Debevoise & Plimpton, joined the Pro Bono Net Board to help advance our mission of leveraging technology to provide access to effective legal services.  Prior to her leadership position at Debevoise, Karen held senior technology roles Weil, Gotshal & Manges and Edwards Wildman Palmer.  She has also served as a legal industry consultant, advising international law firms on technology strategies and implementations.

 

PBN: What brought you to PBN?

KSL: I was aware of PBN through my firm’s use of Pro Bono Manager, a software product used to assist our lawyers in identifying and tracking pro bono assignments. I was later introduced to the organization and its mission by Michael Mills, whom I have known for many years through his work at Davis Polk, and former PBN board member John Alber, who I worked with at Bryan Cave some years ago. Through Michael and John I came to gain an appreciation of the full extent of PBN’s services and mission.

PBN: What about our mission most interests you?

KSL: I’m continually impressed by the strong commitment to pro bono work at my firm and the opportunities it presents for individuals to contribute to the greater good and experience personal growth. I’d been contemplating ways in which my technology skills could be leveraged to provide similar opportunities for non-lawyers when I was approached by PBN to join the board. PBN’s mission to leverage technology to provide access to legal services to a large population of those who are in need of assistance made it a perfect match.

A large portion of the U.S. population does not have access to a lawyer, however most do have access to the internet. PBN takes advantage of ubiquitous technology as the access point and the lowest cost route to deliver information and resources to a large number of individuals with common needs. An example of this is the online templates that PBN developed to enable Hurricane Sandy victims to appeal denials of FEMA benefits.

PBN: You work in a field where women are often the minority, how did you develop an interest in technology?

KSL: I took a computer science class in high school that piqued my interest. I then pursued it as my college major which ultimately led to a computer science degree and job opportunities requiring technical skills. It’s the working with lawyers part that wasn’t exactly part of the plan!

PBN: What more can be done to make the field more accessible to young women?

KSL: The field is entirely accessible to women. The problem is that women are often not attracted to the field. We need to help girls see past the stereotype, providing them with an understanding of the breadth and depth of skills required to succeed. I hope the emergence of successful female leaders, such as myself, provides more young women with a positive vision.

PBN: Anything else you’d like to share?

KSL: I am married and the mother of three children who make me smile every day.

This year, Pro Bono Net celebrated our 15th Anniversary. As we reflect back on the past 15 years, we caught up with a few individuals who were critical to our early growth and development. Below is an interview with Liz Keith, Pro Bono Net Program Director. 

Pro Bono Net: Tell us about your time and role at Pro Bono Net?

Liz Keith: I’m approaching a decade with Pro Bono Net.Liz Keith That sounds like long time, and in some ways it is! But PBN and the communities we work with are incredibly dynamic. I’ve never stopped learning along the way, and have had opportunities to work on and develop a wide variety of projects over the years. I started as a Circuit Rider, helping our partner organizations around the country develop their LawHelp.org and probono.net initiatives. My role has expanded since then. I’m still very involved in those efforts, but now oversee our strategies and services across our programs.

PBN: What drew you to working here?

LK: I came to Pro Bono Net after completing a self-tailored masters degree in community informatics at the University of Michigan, focused on public interest applications of technology. Before that I had worked for several years at the Maine Women’s Policy Center, where I helped to coordinate advocacy and community outreach initiatives focusing on economic security, freedom from violence, health care, and civil rights. In Maine I had a chance to work on several novel initiatives that used online tools to support participation of rural and under-represented communities in policy formation, as well as educating women about changes in the law.

Finding Pro Bono Net was a little like finding a needle in a haystack. It combined my interests in access to legal information, community engagement, and creating innovative solutions to help people in need. The fact that Pro Bono Net is not just a technology provider was also attractive. It’s equally invested in improving collaboration in the legal sector, and supporting our partners in developing effective content, outreach, and sustainability strategies. At the time there very few nonprofit organizations working across these areas – and we’re still pretty unique in that way. The national scale of PBN’s work was an added draw.

PBN: What have been the most exciting changes to observe as the organization has grown?

LK: The most striking is probably the transformation in how the communities we work with view technology. In my first few years I did a lot of site visits to our field partners. The local project coordinator and I would do outreach presentations about LawHelp.org and probono.net to legal aid program staff, community groups, law schools, and so on. Invariably, about 10 minutes into a workshop, someone would raise their hand and say, “all of these online legal resources are great, but do low-income clients really have access to the Internet?” It was a valid question at the time, and a digital divide still persists in certain areas, so part of our strategy has always been to work with community anchor institutions that help the public access LawHelp.org. But these days, we’re hearing questions like, “these online resources are great, but our clients are asking if they can apply for services online or e-file forms through LawHelp Interactive.” Some of that change relates to how much more interwoven technology is with our daily lives now, but evaluations of PBN’s programs and training initiatives show that we’ve played a key role in helping to grow the capacity of the field in taking innovative approaches to client services and volunteer mobilization. Some of the most exciting ideas I hear these days come from people who once described themselves as Luddites. In our consumer-facing work, we’ve also expanded our longtime focus on plain language to include other critical areas like language access. Another exciting development has been the growth of our immigration work, via the Immigration Advocates Network, from a small pilot to a major national initiative using innovative technology and collaboration to tackle complex issues and expand legal services for low-income immigrants.

PBN: What are you most proud of from your time at Pro Bono Net?

LK: I think Hurricane Katrina was a galvanizing moment for Pro Bono Net as an organization and me personally on certain levels. I had done a site visit to New Orleans just a few months before. The impact of Katrina was so widespread it became apparently very quickly that the affected communities, particularly low-income ones, would be dealing with legal issues stemming from the disaster for years to come. We were still a small organization at the time, but were able to mobilize quickly to assist our partners in the region with certain immediate needs, and then in leveraging their LawHelp.org and probono.net projects to deliver critical information to the public and help coordinate response efforts by legal aid staff and volunteers. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to support the work of incredibly dedicated advocates and programs throughout the Gulf Coast in the wake of that event. Since then, I’ve worked with other partners on efforts that use our programs to help people recover from crises – whether natural or industrial disasters, like the BP oil spill or the 2008 economic recession. It’s gratifying to see how our programs can help people get a foothold out of crisis, support the work of legal aid practitioners and volunteers, and advance our partners’ own goals on the ground.

Also – and I can’t take credit for this, but I’m not sure where else it fits in this interview! – I’m really proud of PBN’s staff. They are incredibly talented, committed and deeply engaged in the work we do and supporting our collaborations around the country. They’re also a lot of fun. You can see how we like to spend our spare time in Jake’s summer 2014 round-up.

PBN: Where is Pro Bono Net going over the next 15 years, how will our role change, and how will the second 15 years be different from the first 15?

LK: The only constant is change, right? I think our core mission and approach – developing innovative, sustainable solutions for expanding access to justice – will be a constant. I also think we’ll continue to focus largely on solutions that are scalable and replicable and can have widespread impact, not just one-off projects. That said, I see PBN becoming even more of an incubator, and creating spaces for our staff and partners to develop, test, and learn from small-scale projects. I think increasingly we will mix and match our own technology platforms with cutting-edge commercial tools or innovations in the start-up space. I also see us getting more involved in designing and delivering direct services in certain contexts. We do this now through CitizenshipWorks.org and a few other projects, but other examples might include developing and managing a large-scale remote volunteer initiative for underserved communities, or designing new programs that engage many more non-attorneys and non-legal organizations in access to justice. Looking ahead, I’d love to see us leverage the “network” nature of Pro Bono Net even more – how can we connect the hundreds of public interest organizations and thousands of volunteers in our network in new and creative ways to match resources to needs? And how can we connect individuals facing life-altering issues with these groups, and to each other, in ways that not only solve their immediate problem, but also provide information and resources that have an enduring positive impact on whole communities?

PBN: What are some examples of innovative technologies we hope to support/help develop in the next few years to close the justice gap?

LK: I’m glad you’re not asking me to look 15 years ahead on this one! In the near term, I’m excited about the new capacities we’re building into the next generation of LawHelp Interactive and CitizenshipWorks. On LHI, this includes creating a more scalable platform to better support the creative and diverse ways that legal aid programs, courts, libraries, shelters, and others want to use it. And CitizenshipWorks 2.0 will include new remote consultation tools to bring naturalization legal assistance to smaller and rural communities where resources are scarce. We’re also exploring expansion possibilities for the Debt and Eviction Navigator (aka DEN), a tablet-based screening tool that is used by social workers and nurses to assess the legal needs of the homebound elderly. DEN guides the social workers through a series of questions to conduct consumer and housing “legal health check-ups” for the seniors and then direct them to sources of help. It’s part of a national trend toward partnering with non-legal organizations and lay advocates in solutions for closing the justice gap. I think supportive tools like DEN have a lot of promise, particularly when they draw on the incredibly rich information and referral resources on LawHelp.org sites. We’re also expanding our mobile strategies through several LawHelp.org and probono.net projects. So, a lot to look forward to. Stay tuned to Connecting Justice Communities for updates!

This year, Pro Bono Net celebrated our 15th Anniversary. As we reflect back on the past 15 years, we caught up with a few individuals who were critical to our early growth and development. Below is an interview with Michael Cooper, Pro Bono Net Founding Board Chair. His understanding of the justice gap and support for new ideas were critical during Pro Bono Net’s early years. Mr. Cooper continues to sit on the Pro Bono Net board, and we are very grateful for his continued passion for our mission. 

Pro Bono Net: How did you first become involved with Pro Bono Net?

Michael Cooper: My recollection is that, as I was finishing up a term as President of the New York City Bar Association around May of 2000, Mark and Michael just asked to meet with me. I didn’t know either one of them— I didn’t know their names, I didn’t know anything about them.  But they just asked to meet with me and I said sure.

Michael Cooper
Michael Cooper accepting his award for dedicated service to Pro Bono Net as the Founding Board Chair.

They described their concept of facilitating the connection between the users of legal services and the providers of those services, whether they be lawyers in private practice or the Legal Aid Society or any other organization. And I’m a luddite, I do use the laptop, but I don’t have an iPhone, I don’t have an iPad – I’m really not technology-oriented. But I have devoted a lot of thought, for a long time, to the justice gap.

I guess it was just before I became President of the City Bar in the late 90s, Chief Judge Judith Kaye asked me to chair a task force to try and find permanent funding for legal services. I don’t remember the names of many of the people from the task force, but we got this idea, which I thought was brilliant, to tap the Abandoned Property Fund.  In New York, because there are lots of bank accounts, insurance policies, and dividends that don’t get claimed, this fund is $300 million a year. So we said okay, let’s assign $25 million a year to legal services, and we drafted a statute. I went up to Albany with this idea, and I went to see the Governor’s Secretary and he said, “That’s a really good idea why don’t you go to see the Senate Majority leader.”  So I went to see his Chief of Staff, and he said, “Well that’s a very good idea, see how it strikes the Speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver.”  So I went to see Sheldon Silver and he said, “That’s a very good idea, why don’t you run it by the governor.”  And then I realized I was never going to get anywhere.

So I had this awareness of the gap and frustration with efforts to fill it.  Although I’m not technology-savvy, I intuited that Pro Bono Net had an idea that was potentially invaluable. If you can’t diminish the needs, and they never seem to diminish, and you can’t increase the resources, then you have to make them connect more effectively. So intuitively, I said this is a great idea and I signed up. They asked me if I would be the Board Chair, I signed on, and then it just grew.  I looked away and then looked back and all of a sudden there were two new national sites, and other great leaps.

PBN: How was Pro Bono Net different from the other legal services organizations you had been involved with?

MC: The other legal services organizations that I knew, they all gathered lawyers together, but they basically were providing or arranging for the provision of the service – they were only one part of the equation. The genius of Pro Bono Net was that it connected both parts, originally through probono.net and LawHelp, and then we had this dramatic incident – the World Trade Center attack.  Pro Bono Net created a site for volunteer lawyers, there were more than 2,000 of them at the City Bar, who were willing to help but didn’t know how to find people in need.  Then it has gone on to create sites for Katrina, the tornadoes, and Sandy. That was a very dramatic example of this new concept of using technology to bring together the consumers and the providers.

PBN: How has Pro Bono Net evolved over the years?

MC: It seems like it grew up without my being aware of it. Gradually it accumulated more and more state sites, and two sites in Canada. I have been very interested the relationships that Pro Bono Net has established with the courts, in New York and elsewhere. There’s a huge potential for having a simple work station in a court house where somebody can get help.

PBN: As someone who is not a big technology user, could you discuss how you knew technology could have a powerful effect?

MC: I intuited it. I sensed that there was immeasurable potential there. But I didn’t really understand what it could do.

PBN: What role has PBN played in the broader access to justice movement, especially in terms of bringing technology to the movement?

MC: Well, I don’t know of anybody that was promoting the use of technology to bridge the justice gap – it’s really a very apt phrase – before Pro Bono Net. There was growing interest and capability in getting lawyers to volunteer their services, but there was some connector missing. It’s like having a power station in one place and 100,000 consumers with no electricity in another place and no wires between them.  There was no connection, and that’s what Pro Bono Net has provided.

PBN: What has motivated you to stay involved over the past 15 years?

MC: It’s the only organization where I wasn’t present at the birth, but I saw it in the nursery.  I just watched it grow and it has been such a joy to be there from day one and I want to continue.

PBN:  Is there any part of the growth that has surprised you?

MC: The connection with the courts – that may be the one thing that I didn’t see, or didn’t see it happening as fast, but it didn’t surprise me.

PBN: Where do you see Pro Bono Net going in the future?

MC: I think it’s going to be doing more of what it’s doing.  I’m sure that there will be development of additional national sites – take an example of something that’s been recognized fairly recently, so called human trafficking, there will be additional sites as additional needs arise. I suspect that there are still going to be additional states that will want to work with Pro Bono Net as well. Where else it’s going, I just don’t know, but I sure as hell would like to be along for the ride.

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.

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.