Last week, I brought you the first installment of the SRL Pre-Conference "semi-live blogging" articles. Well, now, a week after the sessions, I bring you the second installment.
Distance Services and Technology
Katrina Zabinski, Supervising Attorney, Minnesota Judicial Branch
There are two self-help center walk-in locations in Hennepin County, Minnesota. Outside of the urban area, the Minnesota Courts have begun to use virtual self-help centers (a computer, desk, and VOIP phone) with centralized phone and e-mail support that is provided by Ms. Zabinski's department. When setting the stations up, the organization focused on the experience of the self-represented litigants. The phone dials directly into the call center; the computer desktop has been simplified so that the litigant knows where to go for information first; and the website focuses on the questions that litigants often have. These workstations have been paid for by one-time funding that was included in a legislative bill that modified Minnesota's child support laws. Currently, the program is looking for additional funding. Challenges in establishing these centers have included
- finding the right staff to create content;
- establishing a permanent funding base; and
- justifying the time investment.
The public's appreciation has been amazing. Most are incredibly happy to get a real person and not a phone tree.
Glenn Rawdon, Program Counsel, Legal Services Corporation
Technology can be used to bridge gaps, whether in the urban or rural areas. You don't have to be in one of the big square states in the middle to be interested in distance services. LSC grantees turn down over 1 million cases each year. One-fifth of those who need lawyers get lawyers. The other four-fifths go without. LSC has encouraged programs to look at innovative technology-based solutions to help legal aid programs be more efficient as well as to help self-represented litigants. Many of those solutions have been funded by the Technology Initiative Grant program. To date, the program has provided $27 million to 343 initiatives. To do this, partnerships have been key. There aren't enough resources to solve the problem once, let alone three times (legal aid, bar, and courts). The State Justice Institute has been an essential partner. Examples of funded projects include
- Idaho Legal Aid Services and the Idaho Supreme Courts have worked together to develop automated court forms, which help self-represented litigants fill out court forms correctly.
- The Internet Representation Project, developed by Legal Services of Northern Michigan (LSNM), allows pro bono attorneys to anonymously give advice to anonymous clients in their service area. So far, 754 questions have been answered, and clients have included people from each of the 36 counties in LSNM's service area. The Minnesota legal aid programs are hoping to replicate this project.
- Alaska Legal Services Corporation has produced CD/DVD material that contain legal workshop materials. The first DVD replaced 9 hours of divorce classes. Their next project will be to create a DVD to help parents help their children during child custody disputes.
- LawHelp/NY and PALawHelp.org have partnered with courts to see that court information is available on their websites.
Judy Meadows, Director and State Law Librarian of Montana
Montana is a big state with not so many people. Still, nearly 300,000 people qualify for legal aid. Because resources are scarce, the access-to-justice stakeholders are forced to work together. Legislative funding for a court-based self-help program was established in 2007. The one-time funding - $500,000 - may not seem like much, but on a per capita basis, it is as much as California receives. From a technology perspective, they have a lot: websites, WestLaw and LexisNexis, video conferencing in every courthouse, LiveHelp, Ask a Librarian, document assembly, and streaming videos. Lessons learned have included
- collect good baseline data to help sell your story;
- a little bit of money can go a long way;
- technology is key; and
- leverage your resources.
Materials from this presentation are available on SelfHelpSupport.org. - K