The legal system is designed for lawyers to argue with lawyers, often for large fees. People without money are automatically at a disadvantage; they’re forced to rely on legal aid, or to fend for themselves.
The question is whether technology might help open up this closed shop just a little. A report last year by Legal Services Corporation, a quasi-government agency that seeks to widen legal access, identified several possibilities. For example, states could set up “legal portals” to assist self-representing defendants. Or they could establish document-assembly systems, making paperwork easier. They could, perhaps, build mobile apps to make filing and accessing information easier.
In this spirit, the ABA Journal (the American Bar Association magazine) and Suffolk University Law School recently organized a two day hackathon to come up with new technology-centered ideas. We spoke with Jill Schachner Chanen, the Journal’s assistant managing editor, about the event and the three winners, which are described below.
Created by attorney William Palin, PaperHealth is designed to help people organize “health care proxies” (giving someone the power to make health care decisions for you) and living wills before they get into emergency situations. Palin’s own brother faced such an emergency and had to come up with a legal document while in a hospital bed. The app, which will be in the Apple Store soon, lets people arrange their affairs ahead of time, without a lawyer.
“I believe the app could be used by both hospitals and by average user,” Palin wrote in his submission. “A hospital could use an iPad to collect the information and allow the user to share his intentions with his agent or his family. Conversely an average user could be prepared by having these documents on their phone in case of an emergency.”
Like PaperHealth, Disastr is aimed at people who don’t know where to turn in a critical situation. Developed by Matthew Burnett and Adam Friedl, it’s an information app covering everything from FEMA benefits to food stamps and insurance. “We were inspired by the idea of creating technology to bridge legal information and representation gaps in times of emergent need,” they write. “Disasters are a perfect example, where unforeseen legal needs arise that require a quick response and innovative delivery systems.”
The third place prize went to Due Processor, which allows users to quickly assess their eligibility to “indigent” (low-income) legal services. You complete a series of fields including your income, the nature of the crime you’ve been charged with, and your employment status, and the tool tells you what help is available. A second section then calculates possible state prison sentences.
“To be eligible for indigency status in Massachusetts, you have to meet certain income guidelines,” Schachner Chanen comments. “Figuring out what those mean is extremely complicated. If you saw the actual paper law on this stuff, it would weigh 10 pounds and be thousands of pages.”
None of these solutions is going level the playing field overnight. But they do show promise. Schachner Chanen says the ABA Journal will organize more justice hacks soon.