For the last year and a half, Cyberlaw Clinic Director Phil Malone and Clinic students have been evaluating how technology can assist citizens, especially low-income, pro se, and other litigants, in navigating the legal system while easing the burden on under-resourced courts. This project has a particular urgency: in the current economy, more people are seeking legal redress through the courts while fewer than ever are represented by lawyers; at the same time, court budgets have been slashed and there are fewer personnel to help the public.
The Cyberlaw Clinic’s immediate work is to assist Dina Fein, a Massachusetts housing court judge appointed as special adviser for Access to Justice Initiatives by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Judge Fein’s mandate is to determine ways to broaden access to civil justice in Massachusetts, including for pro se litigants, low-income people, litigants who aren’t proficient in English, and persons with mental or physical disabilities.
Clinic students have examined technology initiatives in courts around the country, interviewed court and legal aid personnel, technology specialists and vendors, and analyzed relevant literature. The project is continuing, but last August the Clinic presented a preliminary report to Judge Fein setting forth an overview of useful technologies and a series of “best practices” and strategic planning principles for using those tools to better serve the needs of litigants. The Report includes recommendations on making courts’ websites more helpful and easier to use, providing simpler, automated ways for people to fill out legal forms online, implementing electronic case management and “e-filing” systems that are fully accessible to pro se litigants, and developing online but “live” assistance for litigants with questions.
While the Massachusetts Trial Court is the Clinic’s client for this phase of the project, we are working to broaden the results into a rich set of publicly available guidelines, resources and implementation materials that can help courts around the country.
“This project bridges the best of traditional law school clinical practice—assisting low-income, underrepresented people—with our Clinic’s expertise in technology and the use of the Internet to leverage those efforts,” says Malone.