The pandemic forever changed the legal field. When the world paused and courthouses closed due to COVID-19, the judicial system was forced to invite technology into the courtroom. Routine procedural hearings shifted to an online video or phone conference format. Electronic filing and electronic notarization allowed litigants to continue filing cases. Today, remote hearings are still an option for many types of proceedings and e-filing is common practice.
Despite how quickly the court system adjusted to an online format to maintain a pathway to justice, low-income Americans were disproportionately impacted in a negative manner. For instance, in localities lacking the resources to seamlessly introduce technology, litigants were left with no way to proceed with their matters. Additionally, litigants unable to afford representation and appearing pro se in certain matters found it prohibitively challenging to navigate the tech space alone. For pro se litigants lacking high speed internet or English language proficiency, the process seemed insurmountable.
The pandemic only exacerbated the access to justice gap in the United States. Today, millions of low-income Americans have civil issues limiting their access to safe housing, health care, and employment. Yet, 92% of these Americans receive no legal help, or inadequate legal help, for these problems. Contributing to this staggering statistic is the lack of educational resources, a mistrust in the system, and a perception that legal aid is cost prohibitive. Only 25% of low-income Americans reached out for help for their civil legal problems in the last year. Among Americans who reported at least one legal problem, only 5% knew that a legal professional could resolve their issue. More than 50% of low-income Americans doubted they could find and afford an attorney if they needed one.
This is a serious problem as millions of Americans are left to suffer with conflict concerning some of life’s necessities like health care, employment, housing, and family matters. There is no simple solution to bridging the access to justice gap in the United States, but one step in solving this issue is creating inclusive and accessible technology that empowers Americans to solve their legal issues or knowing when it is time to seek assistance from an attorney.
A partner of a successful family law firm in California created an app to help low-income Americans navigate the family law pro se process. The app is called Hello Divorce and it provides do-it-yourself products and services like assistance with filing court documents, legal and financial educational resources, and integrated help from financial advisors, mediators, and attorneys for complex matters. App users can complete their divorce proceedings in one-third the time and spend one-tenth the cost with the 100% online format.
Law firms tend to push back on the introduction of automated technology in fear it will replace the role of attorneys. However, the opposite may be true. Apps like Hello Divorce may be created as an extension of the law firm and designed for people with low conflict matters that can be easily resolved without the assistance of an attorney. If a matter cannot be resolved completely through the app, the user will be directed to an attorney at the firm. All the information the user previously filled out on the app will be forwarded to the attorney to save time and money. There will always be complex divorce proceedings, therefore, there will always be a need for attorneys.
In this digital age of information, Americans with internet access can learn anything. The accessibility of legal information is imperative to fostering a transparent and effective legal system. With such education, Americans can take control over their legal conflicts and work towards solving them. Legal technology can serve both a utility and education purpose by assisting users during the legal proceeding and afterwards as they navigate financial independence following a divorce. Americans educated on the legal system have greater trust in the legal process and the attorneys that assist them.
Attorneys also benefit from the introduction of legal tech. Attorneys feel more satisfied with their work and experience less burnout when they can spend more time helping clients and less time filling out paperwork. Legal apps have the power to transform legal processes from conflict-centered to human-centered advocacy.
The traditional model of legal representation leaves millions of Americans’ legal needs unaddressed. Investing in legal technology is one way to disrupt this ineffective model and shrink the access to justice gap in the United States.