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Technology could increase access to legal services

Friday - 1/3/2014, 11:48am  ET

legalphone composite (WTOP/Neal Augenstein)
Technology could play a role in providing affordable legal help (Composite: Thinkstock/WTOP)

WASHINGTON - Legal aid advocates have released a new report that lays the groundwork for ways to assist people who can't -- or don't want to -- hire a lawyer.

The goal is to close two disturbing divides in America -- the so- called "digital divide" and the challenges facing low-income people navigating the legal system.

"That will help people complete basic legal forms so that they can deal with their legal problems in court themselves," says James Sandman, president of The Legal Services Corporation, which released its "Report of The Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice."

The report comes after a summit of legal aid programs, courts, government, business and technology leaders.

Under the plan, each state would develop a unified "legal portal" which would direct people needing legal help to the most appropriate legal resource.

Sandman says many legal matters generally don't require the assistance -- and expense -- of an attorney.

In many civil cases, a person should be able to prepare the legal documents him or herself.

"A good example would be a simple no-fault divorce -- why should you need a lawyer to do that?" wonders Sandman.

The program would assist users in generating professional-looking documents.

"I'd analogize what we're doing to TurboTax," says Sandman, referring to the tax preparation software that poses questions and integrates answers in IRS-approved forms.

"You can do the same thing with court forms. Lead people through an interview and use the answers to the questions to complete a form that a court will accept and understand. That's what we'd like to do."

Sandman says the forms could be filed electronically after being completed online, or could be printed out and mailed to the court.

The online resources wouldn't be a substitute for hiring a lawyer in cases requiring a nuanced legal opinion -- for instance weighing the pros and cons of accepting a plea bargain.

"Yes, there certainly are some situations where people need the personal assistance of a lawyer," says Sandman. "Where the matter is complicated, where a lawyer really needs to delve into the facts and understand the particular circumstances of a client."

Sandman says a lawyer would be recommended in cases regarding child custody, child support, opposing wrongful evictions and foreclosures, and getting civil protection orders against domestic abuse.

Sandman says a focus of the program will be to develop mobile applications.

"So many people, particularly low-income people have smartphones but don't have desktop computers or other access to the Internet."

Legal Services Corporation was established by Congress in 1974 to provide equal access to justice and to ensure the delivery of high-quality civil legal assistance to low-income Americans.

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