Massachusetts could increase access to justice through just one website
BOSTON, October 3, 2019 — A research report released today by the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice explores how the Massachusetts Trial Court could develop a new, online help center for court users.
The report details how the court system could use innovative technology, a free help line, and a revamped collection of informational materials to assist court users who are forced to represent themselves because they cannot afford to hire an attorney or do not qualify for legal aid. Over half of all civil court users in the Commonwealth represent themselves without the assistance of an attorney, according to the Massachusetts Access to Justice Commission.
“Today in Massachusetts, most people who find themselves in civil court are there alone, without a lawyer to assist them. Usually, this is because they can’t afford to pay for legal help. They’re at risk of losing their families, homes, and livelihood not because they’ve done something wrong, but because they don’t know how to protect their rights,” said Deborah Silva, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. “One proven solution to this growing problem is for courts to provide free online self-help services.”
Court users and the staff who serve them report a need for answering basic logistical questions, providing legal information on case processes, and help with filling out court forms as the most in-demand services from court users.
Today’s report recommends options for expanding legal self-help services that also meet the needs of court users in Massachusetts, including:
- Creating a LiveHelp center where court users could call or message attorneys with questions about their cases.
- Developing new document assembly programs that would allow users to easily fill out legal forms online.
- Revamping the existing informational webpage the court system provides to make it more complete and user-friendly.
As the report details, many other states have taken steps to provide expansive, more effective legal self-help materials through their court websites. Most states – including Massachusetts – have information on how to navigate court proceedings and different types of civil court cases, such as divorce, guardianship, housing, or small claims cases, available online. In addition, state courts in Maryland and Alaska have also developed LiveHelp centers where court users can call a free phone line and receive information and guidance from attorneys and paralegals. In New York, the court system has developed an extensive collection of document assembly programs that allow users to enter their personal information and then receive completed legal forms that they can file with the court.
“We hope the Virtual Court Service Center will be a lasting contribution to increasing access to justice in Massachusetts,” Silva added. “This report represents an exciting vision of how we can use technology to help an even greater number of people with their legal issues than ever before.”
The report, “Turning on the Lights: How the Massachusetts Trial Court Could Deploy a Virtual Court Service Center to Assist Self-Represented Litigants” is available online: https://massappleseed.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Court-Service-Center-Report-Final.pdf
Massachusetts Appleseed’s mission is to promote equal rights and opportunities for Massachusetts residents by developing and advocating for systemic solutions to social justice issues. We research the ways in which the justice system, schools, and government agencies are systematically failing our most vulnerable residents. We collaborate with community partners to ensure that recommended plans of action are practical and comprehensive. We advocate for the implementation of solutions that will create lasting change.
Contact Jake Hofstetter at 617-482-8686 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about this report.
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