At last, the media is staring to “get” that legal aid is not just traditional advocacy.
The rise of online legal forms may not be a gripping subject, but it matters. Tens of millions of Americans need legal help for civil problems — they need a divorce, child support or visitation, protection from abuse or a stay of eviction. They must hold off debt collectors or foreclosure, or get government benefits.
They often have to fight these battles on their own because — despite the fact that civil cases can result in people going to jail, or losing a house, health care or custody of their children — they don’t have the right to a lawyer, as defendants in criminal cases do. Four out of five people who need a civil legal aid lawyer don’t have one.
Walk into a court case between landlords and tenants, or creditors and debtors. The landlord always has a lawyer. The credit card company always has a lawyer. The tenant or debtor practically never does.
This is not just a problem for overmatched individuals. “It creates industries that become more abusive,” said Claudia Johnson, the program manager of LawHelp Interactive, a nationwide initiative to increase access to justice. “They feel ‘we can do whatever we want.’ This is part of the reason we have lost social mobility.”
The solution is to establish a right to counsel in the civil cases where the most is at stake. Many state bar associations support a civil right to counsel, and 18 states are considering laws to guarantee a lawyer in certain civil cases. But until that happens — and we may wait a long time — it makes sense to take a harm-reduction approach and help the self-represented do the best they can. One way is with online forms and apps.
What’s really great about the piece is that it starts the brainstorming process about the other possibilities that come from automated court access, forms, etc, including the idea that programs could be proactive. Wonderful.
What else could technology do? “There’s a lot of low-hanging fruit that hasn’t been grabbed yet,” said Stubenberg [of the Maryland Online Expungement Project]. “Foreclosure, for instance, deals a lot with whether certain papers were filed at the right time. Banks have to file certain papers in the right order and on the right date.” It’s a significant issue. One study of the behavior of mortgage companies in consumer bankruptcies found that in a majority of cases, the mortgage companies had not complied with the law.
“An app could find all the times the bank made a mistake,” said Stubenberg. “And we could find the clients. We could tell them, ‘You have a house that can be saved because banks screwed up. Would you like us to help you?’ In theory, you’d have a success rate of nearly 100 percent.”
Thanks, NYT and writer Tina Rosenberg, who is also one of the founders of the Solutions Journalism Network.