(TNS) — SARASOTA, FLA. — You've got a civil case pending. You can't afford an attorney. But you're entitled to justice.
Sarasota, Fla., attorney David Smith and his teenage son, Avery, developed My Law, a cloud-based service to help regular people present their own case in court with access to state statutes, evidence, case law and messaging at their fingertips. All you need is a laptop, PC, tablet or smartphone.
"What we are trying to do is finish that puzzle," David Smith said. "The courts provide all kinds of help for people who can't afford an attorney or don't want to use an attorney. One of the challenges for people is they can get information from the court or online resources, pro bono or legal aids, but a lot of time they end up having to go to court to represent themselves.
"There is no platform until My Law that has allowed them free access to platforms, rule books and free case law if they need it."
According to the Legal Services Commission, 86 percent of legal problems reported by low-income Americans in the past year were handled with "inadequate or no legal help." About 71 percent of low-income households experienced at least one civil problem with health care, housing, disability access, veterans' benefits and domestic violence. That caused an estimated 1.7 million low-income Americans to seek support from legal aid groups, the commission said.
Most legal information is available free online, but it's difficult to navigate without law training.
My Law, which is accessible as a website or an app for Apple devices, organizes state statutes and rules for traffic, criminal, family, appellate, juvenile, small-claims and civil court, among others under icons such as "Law Online" and "Rule Library." They are searchable using keywords.
Criminal attorney Derek Byrd said My Law is helpful to both "regular people" and attorneys.
"It takes a lot of important resources lawyers use and merges them together, allowing for simple and easy research," Byrd said. "It also assists the user in making a presentation, using technology that appears to be easier than some of the other software I have seen."
A free My Law account gives users 100 MB of cloud-based storage — enough for one case — in which they can store documents, PowerPoint presentations and web links, as well as audio, video and still image files. These can be accessed in court and displayed on courtroom projection systems.
Email integration allows information to be shared.
"If the judge says, 'I need a copy of that,' you can email it directly from the platform," David Smith said. "It is a great sharing tool."
Direct messaging, contacts and forums are also available for communication and learning. My Law is linked to Google Scholar, a free online database that can be used to search legal articles and case law.
The free version of My Law also allows users access to information from a single state, while a pro version gives those presenting three or more cases access to all jurisdictions and 2 GB of cloud storage space, unlimited files and tabs and support for all office documents, rule library updates and the ability to convert web pages to PDFs. The pro version also offers custom templates.
State court information is compiled at no cost online. My Law allows the information to be assembled, organized and brought to court to be presented without toting boxes of papers.
Avery Smith, 18, who will head to the University of Florida to study marketing and business in the fall, says he went to court with his dad and saw all the materials that lawyers and clients brought to the courtroom. The briefcases and boxes of paper, computers and other tools required assembly and wasted time, it seemed to him.
"From the legal standpoint, it's very unproductive," Avery Smith said. "I can see that being a lawyer is very stressful. They don't have the tools to be super productive. There's so much information that comes into a trial; they have to be super prepared."
The time spent fumbling with paperwork during a trial could be used preparing for the case.
David Smith, whose firm is the Law Office of David W. Smith PA, said he uses My Law for iPad in court and finds that it eases the burden of frantically searching for important information through an email inbox cluttered with coupons and junk mail.
Several local attorneys say they use professional applications such as Westlaw for legal research and Clio to manage their law practice, but My Law offers a user-friendly platform for average users.
Avery Smith, who is active in Teen Court of Sarasota Inc., said it was important to him to help those who can't afford legal services. Sarasota's teen court provides at-risk students and volunteers ages 8 to 18 youth development activities and intervention services.
Teen volunteers can hear their peers' cases and participate in the judicial process for those charged with "minor mistakes," said Avery Smith, who is also involved in soccer club and school news.
"General people who have to go to court, it can be very confusing for them to know what documents they have to submit and what they have to present at trial," Avery Smith said. "They can bring all their documents to the courtroom. ... We are trying to make a product to help them be as productive as lawyers in a case."
The father-son team started developing My Law in 2016 and released a test version on the Apple App Store in December. Since the full version was rolled out Jan. 1, the app has undergone 17 updates, including one last week. An Android version is coming soon.
The app works with Apple devices with iOS 10.3 or later. Users must be 17 years old to download the app, according to the App Store.
"It's really rewarding. I feel very blessed that he's taken an interest in something like this," David Smith said of his son. "His perspective has been invaluable. Certain things, technology-wise, he gives a perspective I don't have. That perspective has been incredible."
Avery Smith is interested in following a pre-law track at UF. He will continue to partner with his father to improve My Law, which has gained 50 users since its release.
The app was demonstrated at Ohio University Law School and to members of the 12th Judicial Circuit Court in Manatee County. Other presentations are planned in a month with practice-management advisers, David Smith said.
"The 12th Circuit feels that the app could be a valuable tool for attorneys and pro se litigants," 12th Judicial Circuit spokesman Dennis Menendez said, using the technical term for people representing themselves.
My Law is based on U.S. law and is made for state and local court, but could be used worldwide, according to David Smith.
©2018 Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Fla. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.