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Can Technology Make the Civil Court System More Accessible?

The number of people involved in a civil court case without a lawyer has increased ninefold in 25 years. Pew Charitable Trusts wants to fix that problem with the help of technology.

Pew Charitable Trust wants to make the non-criminal legal system easier to navigate without lawyers, and technology is a key component to their plans.

Modernizing civil courts at the state and local level has become increasingly important in a world where residents can handle their business online whether it's to order takeout or pay property taxes. Yet the courts remain a relatively offline system that in large part demand physical attendance for sometimes procedural tasks.

Even more troubling is that an increasing number of people are navigating civil court cases, such as small claims or family issues, without a lawyer, according to Erika Rickard, who was formerly with Harvard’s Access to Justice Lab and is now a senior officer in the Civil Legal System Modernization at Pew.

Unlike in criminal court, people involved in civil court — whether it's for debt collection, landlord disputes, custody cases or other legal issues — don’t have a right to a lawyer to represent them. If they can’t afford a lawyer, they must still attend and represent themselves. Pew’s research has found that as recently as 1992, as few as 5 percent of people in general civil court cases did not have a lawyer. Today, however, that number has risen ninefold, and 45 percent of cases in general jurisdictions have at least one side without a lawyer. When small claims and other cases are included, that number rises to 75 percent.

“In three out of four cases today, at least one side doesn’t have a lawyer,” Rickard said. “That’s more than 30 million people every year who are navigating state and local court systems without a lawyer. The key here is that a typical court user has really changed, has changed dramatically, but courts have not really changed along with that new reality.”

The new reality involves a sizable increase in low cost cases, at least from the court’s perspective. Cases for debt collection of less than $5,200 take place much more frequently than they did decades ago. These are cases that from the court’s perspective may seem less consequential, but they often have the potential to have cascading consequences throughout people’s lives, said Rickard.

Helping courts to change and ensure easier navigation of their systems is essentially what Pew is now working to do, and they hope to accomplish that with changes in three specific areas: by building new research, by building new relationships and by developing and evaluating promising new technologies.

Pew is already working to introduce two specific technologies to court systems across the country. The first effort will create online legal information and assistance portals. The second involves court-based online dispute resolutions. Both stand to make life easier for people who can’t afford lawyers.

“The tools we’re talking about don’t necessarily change whether lawyers are going to be part of the system,” Rickard said. “Of course lawyers are always going to be a part of the system, but what these tools do is they enable the courts to become more efficient and adapt a little more effectively to who’s using the system, whether they have a lawyer or not.”

A Web-based portal, for example, would let users simply log in and write in their own words a legal problem they might have, subsequently pointing them to useful information that's relevant to their situations. This might even include being connected with a lawyer, as well as to self-help materials. The overarching goal is helping individuals to better understand their legal problems and to address them more efficiently.

Work is underway at the local level to connect vendors with court systems that can help them set up the technological modernizations that Pew is working to put into place. Online dispute resolution has long been used in e-commerce within the private sector, and some of the companies that developed those solutions are now starting to work on doing the same within the public sector. 

“The goal, more broadly,” Rickard said, “is to give people tools in their hands to be able to navigate on their smartphones or on their desktops an entire court process online from start to finish without having to ever come into a courthouse.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.