February 16, 2007 By Eliot Cole
The legal system can be an overwhelming prospect for low-income people or those who speak English as a second language. To make it easier, the nonprofit Legal Aid Society of Orange County, Calif., (LASOC) developed I-CAN!, a multilanguage Web-based kiosk system that offers free legal support to low-income residents who have official business with the courts.
And it's not just limited to Orange County. I-CAN!'s success has caught the eye of other jurisdictions. The Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles, located in Van Nuys, will provide I-CAN! kiosks soon, according to the LASOC, and the system is also currently used in the Barstow Courthouse, the Fullerton Library and the Joshua Tree Courthouse, and is used in other states including Colorado, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Virginia.
Seven years ago, the Orange County District Attorney's Office calendar was flooded with defaults, or orders to pay child support typically brought against a man who has failed to respond to a court order in a paternity case. In most of these cases, the recipient hasn't participated in any previous child-support proceedings for a variety of reasons: He may not have been served in the first place, and if he was, he might not have known what to do, or he might have completely ignored court orders and decided not to show up.
The LASOC, which provides free legal advice to the county's low-income residents, had also been spending too much of its staff's time addressing similar cases. To solve the problem, the LASOC developed the first module of I-CAN! in November 2000.
"We wanted to create a system for those who wouldn't get our assistance, but who needed to proceed or who would not be able to access our courts," Cohen said.
The initial paternity I-CAN! module proved successful, and the district attorney noticed an increased in fathers submitting their court papers, said Bill Tanner, the LASOC supervising attorney. Fathers showed up at the center and used I-CAN!, resulting in a marked decrease in the number of defaults being ordered.
"They were participating in the lives of their children, which is something they weren't doing before," Tanner said.
I-CAN! consists of a series of modules programmed to help users in matters of child custody, divorce, child and family support, eviction defenses, small claims, guardianship and name changes. In most of these cases, there was a need to create something to act as a bridge to the court system.
"The system isn't designed to substitute for a lawyer," Cohen said. "It was to compete with nothing else being available. We created a system which prompts a user to answer questions, and when they're done with their answers, with their 'interview,' they've created a properly formatted pleading."
The LASOC assesses potential users who have either come in on their own or who have been referred by the courts.
"We do a triage on them," said Tanner. "We offer referrals. And for those who want small claims and family law, they use I-CAN! We introduce it to them."
Tanner said the biggest obstacle with I-CAN! is getting folks over their fear of technology. "The first reaction is, 'I don't know anything about computers. I can't do this.' If you just say, 'Sit down. Try it. You can do it. You've got to try it.' You get them through the fourth screen shot. Pretty much they'll be engaged. They're smiling at the end."
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