Imagine you are single, with two kids, one in diapers. You have steady work, but after paying for commuting, child care, food and rent, there isn’t much left over. You speak Spanish natively, and English well enough to get by. Things are going along pretty well until the heat fails, repeatedly, in your apartment. When the landlord doesn’t fix it despite your complaints, you withhold rent, as you are legally entitled to do. Not long after that, you are served with an eviction notice.
Where do you turn?
You are not a lawyer, you don’t know any lawyers, and you certainly can’t afford to pay a lawyer. You’ve heard you can “represent” yourself in court – but how? You may be able to get help from a legal aid organization, but which one? The legal aid “system,” such as it is, is de-centralized and fragmented, making it hard to know even where to begin, much less how to solve your problem.
Millions of people in America face challenges like this every year. For better or worse, we are a highly legalistic society, but not everyone has access to the justice system. That can render people powerless – people who need help with housing, employment, government benefits or protection from an abusive spouse. In an era of increasing concern about income inequality, this is a big problem: the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) – an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans – estimates that only about 20 percent of the civil legal needs of low-income people in the United States are adequately addressed.
Technology can help. The same tools that businesses and people are increasingly using to shop, learn and communicate can be deployed to address the access-to-justice gap. The technological building blocks are available – we just need to get to work building solutions to address access to justice.
That is why earlier today Microsoft joined with the LSC and Pro Bono Net in announcing the development of a prototype access to justice “portal.” Microsoft will provide funding of at least $1 million and project management expertise to build out this project.
Drawing on state-of-the-art cloud and Internet technologies, this portal will enable people to navigate the court system and legal aid resources, learn about their legal rights and prepare and file critical court documents in a way that is accessible, comprehensive and easy to navigate. The ultimate goal is to help people every step of the way toward addressing their legal problem.
This first-of-its-kind system will be accessible from any device, standards-compliant and connected to legal aid organizations through open software interfaces. Once the prototype is developed, we will post it in open source form to GitHub, one of the leading sites for open-source software development projects. That way, others can build upon it or build other, comparable systems. Over time, we hope that every state will develop a portal solution to provide a modern, efficient way for everyone to access the court system and legal aid resources. With recent advances in machine learning, we can even imagine that within the not-too-distant future systems such as these could enable people to speak naturally and receive help in a comfortable “chat” format tailored to their specific needs.
LSC developed the vision for this portal over the past few years, working with leaders from across the access to justice community. The National Center for State Courts recently began fleshing out the technical requirements for such a portal. Pro Bono Net, a national non-profit organization dedicated to addressing the access-to-justice gap through technology and collaboration, has agreed to help convene local partners and provide service design expertise to execute the pilot. We couldn’t be happier to start working with all three of these organizations to implement LSC’s vision of access to justice for all.
In addition to his role at Microsoft, Heiner is also the chairman of the board of Pro Bono Net.