It has been three years since the Great Recession ended, but the nation's courthouses are still swamped with eviction cases, foreclosures, and debt collection suits. If overdue bills and late rent were crimes, all low-income tenants and debtors could get a public defender for free. Because those cases are civil suits, though, the state doesn't provide an attorney. Which means that in civil court, most people don't have a lawyer in their corner—even though their homes and financial stability are on the line.
What many do have in their back pockets, however, is a smartphone. And soon, they might be able to find some legal help there, too.
Like everyone else, lawyers for the poor are trying to do more with less, as government grants and private funding have dried up. Increasingly, that means turning to tech, using new tools to deliver information to clients, support volunteer lawyers, and improve their own systems. They're using text messaging, automated call-backs, Web chats, and computer-assisted mapping.
A crush of new clients is pushing the growing reliance on technology, as the old systems just can't keep up. For years, people seeking help have called their local legal services offices, only to wait on hold for 20 minutes or more. If someone has a pay-by-the-minute cellphone, as many low-income people do, that gets expensive fast. Many callers just give up, says Elizabeth Frisch, the co-executive director of Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania. So Frisch and her team are piloting an automated call-back system, using voice over IP, to reduce hold time and save those precious minutes.
Text messages can also improve efficiency. If courts sent SMS reminders to litigants, that would help move along cases that get postponed over and over when one party doesn't show up, says Glenn Rawdon. Rawdon runs the technology grants program at the Legal Services Corp., the federal program that funds legal aid groups. A text could also help people remember to bring documents to meetings with their overworked lawyers. “It's very time-consuming if they come to the appointment and say, 'Oh yeah, I forgot to bring the papers,' ” Rawdon says. And SMS can be used to deliver basic legal information, like what to look for when signing a lease, or the laws surrounding a wage claim. Legal aid groups in Georgia, New York, Washington, Illinois, and Pennsylvania are all piloting text-based campaigns this year.
For simple questions, technology can help deliver information to clients. For more complicated problems, only a lawyer will do. Unfortunately, there aren't enough lawyers to go around. That's particularly true outside of cities.
For example, 70 percent of Georgia’s lawyers are in the Atlanta metro area, although just under 30 percent of the state's population lives there, according to the State Bar of Georgia. Six counties have no lawyers at all.
“It's really expensive to deliver legal services in a rural area. Lawyers have to travel,” says Michael Monahan of Georgia Legal Services. Some lawyers at his organization cover six or seven counties, he says, working in the field three or four days a week.
So five years ago, Georgia Legal Services created virtual office kits, with laptops, portable printers, and scanners. They also got an assist from Sprint, which provided free air cards for mobile Internet access and an “extremely low data rate” for unlimited usage.
In Ohio, which also has big rural areas and a shortage of lawyers to serve them, Web chat can help volunteers reach more clients.
The system “allows us to address an imbalance between where the attorneys are and where our clients are,” says Kevin Mulder, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Ohio.
But logistics aren't the only hurdle for volunteers. They can be “a little uncomfortable taking cases that are outside their practice area,” says David Lund, who runs the Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota.
If you're used to dealing with real estate contracts, for instance, a Medicaid case can be intimidating. So he's developing a set of checklists for specific issues, optimized for tablets, that lawyers can use when they're volunteering.
They'll use it at the start of a case, as they're laying out a client's options, and at potential settlements, to make sure that they haven’t missed anything crucial. In eviction cases, for example, a landlord can get a judgment of possession. This allows the tenant to leave without paying back rent, but it's still a judgment against him, which means it can jeopardize eligibility for future subsidized housing, like Section 8. An experienced landlord-tenant lawyer would know that. An occasional volunteer would not. Which is where the checklist comes in.
Some things are best left to full-time legal aid lawyers. But since there are so few, groups are using data analysis and mapping to better focus their scarce resources. Prairie State Legal Services in Rockford, Ill., is using its “incredible mass of data” to develop a mapping project, plotting addresses and legal needs. Director Michael O’Connor says this will help them answer questions like, “Are there clusters in certain communities where lots of people are facing issues with access to public benefits, or substandard housing?” Armed with that information, his staff can do targeted outreach campaigns or ramp up for litigation.
No one thinks technology is a cure-all. Even the best app or website can't stand next to you in front of a judge, responding to the opposing counsel.
And despite these promising tools, unmet need is enormous. Many clients want more support than they can get from an app or a chat, but limited funds make that unlikely. “For a large percentage of those folks, [help via technology] will be it. That will be the most that we will be able to offer,” says Deb Jennings, who manages a phone helpline at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality in Toledo, Ohio. And the use of new tech tools is in the early stages—many projects are somewhere between concept and beta.
The tools that are in use show great promise. Groups across the country have developed self-help websites, and they’ve been hugely popular. In 2012 so far, more than 3 million people downloaded resources from LawHelp.org, a nonprofit site that offers legal information and legal aid referrals. Through an affiliated site, people can answer simple questions and produce documents ready to file in court. More than 300,000 people have created documents this year, for things like wills, leases, and custody agreements.
In an ideal world, everyone who needs one would have a lawyer. But few people know better than lawyers for the poor just how far from ideal this world is.
Relying on technology “is a bit waving the white flag and saying we acknowledge we're not going to help everybody, so here's a second best solution,” O'Connor says. “And it is second best, but it is at least providing help to some people who otherwise wouldn't get anything.”
This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.