Demystifying the Judicial System

The Legal Aid Society of Orange County's I-CAN! system is spreading to other California jurisdictions and providing people legal know how.

by / February 16, 2007

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.

As an example of I-CAN!'s growing use outside Orange County, Bob Cohen, the LASOC's executive director, said users created a total of 517 court I-CAN! documents in January 2006, and only 155 of those were created in his jurisdiction.

Marked Success
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.

System Participants
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."

I-CAN! is funded by such organizations as the Legal Services Corp., the Judicial Council of California, the Orange County District Attorney and the city of Irvine. Cohen said the LASOC is always writing grants to keep I-CAN! funded.

"The system was created mostly through seed grants, and we recognize that it's a full part of our service system," he said. "We also donate revenues from our lawyers' referral service. We have a three-tier service system: over the phone hotline; self-help, mostly I-CAN!; and in-depth legal services."

Cohen said maintaining I-CAN! isn't a burden because the system doesn't require much staff: One staff person can oversee four people using I-CAN! For these reasons, he said, the LASOC can afford to keep it in the budget.

Microsoft technologies, such as ASP, .NET, Visual Basic, JavaScript, IIS, and SQL Server power I-CAN! The system works on PCs with Internet Explorer 5.5 or greater, and with Windows 95, 98, NT, 2000 and XP.

Judicial Autonomy
I-CAN! gives people the power of legal access.

"It gets them into court where they haven't been before," Tanner said, adding that he wasn't surprised to learn judges are finding that people are more prepared.

Users are no longer appearing before judges with blank stares on their faces. Having used the I-CAN! modules, they come prepared with definitions of legal terms or dates of availability they might need to recall right away.

"Otherwise sometimes, parties just get there and stare at each other and wait for the court to act as their advocate," continued Tanner. "That's not their role."
Eliot Cole Contributing Writer