Legal Aid

Legal Services Corp., Microsoft plan voice-response portals for legal advice

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Someday in the not too distant future, legal aid questions may be answered in the cloud by the jurisprudential version of Alexa. But, not waiting for that day, legal aid providers are pushing forward plans to allow those seeking legal help to tell their stories through the internet at a site that could guide them through the available resources and appropriate contacts.

Microsoft is investing $1 million into a program partnership with the Legal Services Corp. and Pro Bono Net to develop web portals to access legal aid information. The funds cover the technology, implementation costs and services, which the LSC is hoping to have available by the second half of 2018.

In April, the LSC announced that legal aid assistance programs in Alaska and Hawaii were selected as state pilot programs because of their track records in meeting civil legal needs and their geographies, which pose challenges in the traditional delivery of legal services.

In June, the LSC released The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-Income Americans (PDF), which reports that “86 percent of civil problems reported by low-income Americans in the past year received inadequate or no legal help.”

“Many studies have examined the magnitude of the justice gap,” says James Sandman, the LSC’s president, “and they all show that the vast majority of the legal needs of low-income people just don’t get addressed. And when they don’t, our legal system is not working as it was intended to work.”

“We need to make justice far more accessible to people who don’t have access to a lawyer,” Sandman adds.

The LSC convened a legal aid technology summit in 2012 and 2013 and later produced a report that envisions an integrated service delivery system (PDF). The system would include a unified legal portal in each state that employs an automated triage process to direct clients to the most appropriate help and guide self-represented litigants through the legal process.

portal launch challenges

“Accessing legal assistance today is complicated and opaque,” Sandman says. “A Google search would have all kinds of resources, but it’s very hard to sort out, and so it’s a random situation as to who actually gets help. The portal will use an algorithm to put to use the information provided by the user.”

The hope is that the portals can be one-stop shopping.

“Right now, the whole legal aid landscape is very fragmented, by state, by county, by court, by family law court,” says Dave Heiner, deputy general counsel at Microsoft and chairman of the board of Pro Bono Net. “There are a lot of legal aid organizations to help you, and some of the ways you can get a lawyer are automated, while others aren’t.”

“The next great step forward is natural language,” Heiner adds. “Just speak and have the computer understand the meaning of the words, like Alexa [Amazon] and Siri [Apple]. So it might be something like ‘I’m being evicted from my apartment; what should I do?’

“The system will ask appropriate questions, like ‘Why didn’t you pay the rent?’ And the user would say, ‘The landlord didn’t provide heat.’ ”

Representatives from the pilot states are stoked to be part of the program.

“This is an ideal fit for Alaska,” says Stacey Marz, director of the Family Law Self-Help Center for the state court system. “We’re excited to participate in the building of an electronic gateway for clients, regardless of their geographic location.” Marz says the website receives about 70,000 visitors annually.

“One of the biggest challenges we face in legal aid is getting people access to information,” says M. Nalani Fujimori Kaina, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, whose webpage averages 8,700 visitors monthly. “Legal issues are complex, and sometimes you need direction. We’re looking at the program as a real opportunity to do something that can be replicated in other states.”

Sandman says there is no downside to launching the portal program in the midst of the Legal Services Corp.’s budget battle with the Trump administration.

“Congress is not going to eliminate funding for LSC,” Sandman says. “Microsoft is backing this for both initial funding and program management services technology, and they’re handling the cost of implementation.”

This article appeared in the September 2017 issue of the ABA Journal with the headline “Easy Access: The LSC, Microsoft plan voice-response portals for legal advice.”

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