Expanding Access to Justice
Increasing Access to Legal Services via Technology: A 2014 study by the Boston Bar Association found that civil legal aid service providers turn away 64% of income-eligible cases, for lack of funds. That means that over 30,000 low-income residents in Massachusetts, facing eviction, domestic violence, and other crises, faced them alone. The BBA Report made special note of family law cases, which are turned away 80% of the time.
Is technology a big part of the solution for this tremendous need? MA Appleseed thinks so, and is embarking on a new direction for our organization to look at the models by which low-income people are provided legal services and how technology can make a real difference in access to justice. We are excited to be building relationships with leaders in the access to justice and technology community. Appleseed is in a unique position to convene and collaborate with the many outstanding organizations and academic institutions in Massachusetts tackling the issue of access to justice — coordinating efforts and advocating for solutions to our local challenges is what we do! And while technological solutions will not be enough alone to solve the challenges of overburdened and underfunded civil legal aid and court systems, we believe that innovative technology approaches will allow for real expansion of services over time, without increasing costs.
Here are two examples of the work that we are launching:
- Court Service Centers: In 2014, Massachusetts opened its first Court Service Centers as part of an effort to build a bridge between the Court and self-represented litigants. Court Service Centers are locations within state courthouse where self-represented litigants can more easily obtain access to informational resources, forms and other assistance that facilitates their experience with the courts. At present, there are six centers in operation in courthouses in Boston, Greenfield, Springfield, Worcester, Lawrence, and Brockton.
The MA Appleseed Center is partnering with Court leaders, staff and other members of the justice community to expand access to justice by creating a 'virtual' Court Service Center. Our research role will involve analyzing data, interviewing stakeholders, and studying policies and procedures used in comparable settings to make recommendations about the content and design of an ideal virtual CSC for Massachusetts. Through this ambitious initiative, MA Appleseed will contribute to a significant shift in the way Massachusetts residents are able to access justice, one which is not based only on location, and one which takes advantage of readily available technology.
- Self-help digital tools: MA Appleseed is working to partner with technology experts to design, find funding for and promote the use of "self-help" digital tools that will dramatically change the way self-represented litigants find information about legal procedures and will ultimately enable self-represented litigants to accurately and efficiently complete forms and generate advocacy documents on their own.
Language Access: An estimated 22% of the population in Massachusetts speaks a language other than English at home. State and Federal law prohibit discrimination on the basis of national origin and the United States Supreme Court has held that language access is a proxy for national origin and that national origin discrimination includes failing to provide Limited English Proficient (LEP) individuals "meaningful access" to recipient programs. Thus, an individual who has a limited ability to read, write, speak, and understand English and is engaging with a state agency has the right to: (1) use public programs and communicate in their preferred language; (2) receive vital written materials in their preferred language; and (3) be provided with language interpreter services that are free and adequate. MA Appleseed is planning to begin a research project later this year examining the extent to which certain state agencies in Massachusetts are fulfilling their legal obligation to provide "meaningful access" to LEP individuals and to identify any gaps that may exist and recommend and advocate for improvements where necessary.