Opening the Doors of Justice

Colorado pilots the first pro se e-filing system for low-income citizens.

by / December 4, 2003
Personal legal proceedings can be difficult for anyone to manage. But the hurdle is even higher for citizens who can't afford an attorney.

Colorado is trying to make life a little easier for self-represented, or pro se, litigants in civil matters. Through an innovative public/private/nonprofit partnership, the state is conducting an e-filing pilot designed to open the civil justice system to Colorado residents who can't afford legal representation. The system, which is being built by LexisNexis, the Legal Aid Society of Orange County (Calif.), Colorado Legal Services and the Colorado State Court System, will allow low-income litigants and self-represented clients to file legal paperwork with the court online.

"According to a landmark study by the American Bar Association, only around 20 percent of the legal needs of the indigent are met," said Jon Asher, executive director of Colorado Legal Services. "This will help make it easier for those who can't afford a lawyer to handle legal matters on their own." The pilot is expected to be up and running by the end of the year, and e-filing will be free to indigent litigants.

Technology Saves the Day
Technology can help people willing to help themselves, said Eric Kleiman, press secretary for Legal Services Corp. (LSC), a federal nonprofit created by Congress in 1974 to promote equal access to civil justice.

"A lot of people give up on justice because they know they don't have the money or the knowledge to handle problems themselves," Kleiman said. "Using technology, we can make seeking justice realistic for people who never before thought of doing that."

Colorado was inspired by a kiosk and Web-based legal services system in California designed to provide low-income citizens convenient access to legal services called the Interactive Community Assistance Network (I-CAN!). Developed by the Legal Aid Society of Orange County, Calif., I-CAN! allows citizens to interactively prepare pleadings using a simple form. The system asks questions at a fifth-grade literacy level, in English or Spanish, and creates properly formatted pleadings.

The Legal Aid Society of Orange County allows its system to be customized for use by other jurisdictions, but in California, citizens must manually file their documents with the court. Colorado will take I-CAN! one step further by allowing prepared documents to be filed with the courts electronically.

"For years, the Colorado state court system has had a contract with LexisNexis for electronic filing of court documents. Until now, that service has only been available to lawyers," said Asher. "There are counties in Colorado that require lawyers to both file and receive court documents electronically, but we haven't been able to apply that to pro se litigants so far. There have always been difficulties in terms of pro se litigants not having e-mail addresses, courts not being sure they know how to file things, how they can receive responsive documents back, etc."

Asher and others in Colorado came up with a solution: integrating the I-CAN! system with LexisNexis e-filing to allow citizens to fill out easy forms and electronically file them in one step. Colorado Legal Services submitted a proposal to LSC and was awarded a $165,000 grant to build the new system.

When Colorado citizens want to file legal motions, they can go to any county courthouse in Adams, Arapahoe or El Paso counties and use a touchscreen, self-help computer terminal and I-CAN! software to file claims related to domestic violence, wrongful evictions and small claims.

"The I-CAN! system will then generate a PDF-type form and a data file, presumably XML, of the data entered," said Kerry Rupp, vice president of e-file sales and implementation at LexisNexis. "That's going to get transferred to our e-filing system, then we're going to take that document and the related XML file and funnel it through our existing integration, so it will go into the court system. There, it will be reviewed by the clerk and docketed automatically using the infrastructure we've already built for attorney filing."

Rupp said secure sockets layer encryption technology and a substantial security system are already in place to protect the information. "However, most of what will be filed in these cases will be public record," she said. "It's unlikely these documents will need to be sealed, but we do facilitate that as necessary."

Increasing Efficiency
The new system is expected to increase efficiency within Colorado courts as well. "Our state court system has been seriously underfunded," said Asher. "There are fewer clerks than we've had during better times, so handling cases electronically will help add to the efficiency and effectiveness of the courts."

Kleiman said technology is tremendously helpful in making the most of scarce resources. "In an ideal scenario, every low-income person who had a legitimate legal problem would be able to have representation in court," he said. "Unfortunately, that's not the case. The reality is legal services -- even basic, critical, noncontroversial services -- are massively underfunded in this country."

If the Colorado pilot is successful, Kleiman said he hopes it will be replicated throughout the country.

Asher said he would like to see it expanded to cover more areas of law.

"It's been documented that an increasing number of people are choosing -- either because of economic necessity or other reasons -- to go to court without lawyers," Asher said. "Hopefully this is the start of a long but important journey -- not only for poor people but for other people of modest means or those who simply feel they can handle their case on their own."
Justine Brown Contributing Writer