The Legal Information Needs of Poor and Middle Income People and the Organizations that Advocate for Them

Richard Zorza, Esq.

Paper One: Client and Community Organization Needs and Potential


This paper explores the legal information needs of poor and middle income people, with a focus on direct access by poor and middle income people themselves.The paper is one of a series prepared under the Chicago Kent Law School/Open Society Institute Consultancy on the Legal Information Needs of Poor and Middle Income People and the Organizations that Serve Them.


In the face of massive unmet need, legal services organizations have only just begun to recognize that at least some of the need came be met by the provision of information rather than direct representation, and to explore innovative methods of providing information to those in legal need.While the legal services movement has a long history of experimentation with self help clinics and client education materials, organizations have only begun to move these materials to the Web, or to integrate this capacity with the broad delivery system.There is urgent need -- and great potential --to develop a system that facilitates the use of these new technologies to play their part in meeting – together with other assistance methodologies -- a major portion of the now increasingly accepted 100% access to justice goal.

There is Massive Unmet Need for Legal Help and Information

The point does not need belaboring.Regardless of whether one measures intake denials, court filings, or survey data, the conclusion is inescapable that, if measured in terms of its numerical success at providing one-on-one legal help to low income people, the system –notwithstanding the Herculean but grossly under-funded efforts of dedicated advocates and its huge impact on the justice system as a whole --is not doing its job.[1]

This Unmet Need Runs Across a Broad Spectrum of Client Groups and Legal Problems.

While traditionally legal services need has been defined as “family, welfare, housing, and other,” there is an increasing understanding of the importance of areas beyond the traditional legal services focus.Moreover, there is a realization that even these traditional areas have expanded.TANF, for example, has redefined the traditional welfare field completely, moving it away from law based advocacy to fact-based advocacy, involving a far broader range of social problems, and a wider range of helping organizations.[2]The needs of middle income families are hardly better met.[3]

The Legal Services Community is Coming Increasingly to Recognizes that as a Practical Matter This Need is Unlikely to be Fully Met by Traditional Representation. At the Same Time the Broader Legal Community is Coming to See that the Health of Our Legal Institutions Depends in Part on Finding a Way to Meet this Need.

For over twenty years, the governing paradigm for advocating for additional legal services for the poor has been to demonstrate that the current system is meeting 5, 10 or 20% of the need, and then to argue for a relatively small funding increase that would provide for a small increase the percent of need being met.In the last few years, however, the combination of the shock of the 1996 cuts and restrictions, together with service delivery innovations such as hotlines. (which may be, but are not necessarily technologically innovative) has enabled the legal services community to start to think about meeting100% of need.[4]

At the same time other institutions, and in particular courts, have finally began to focus on the impact on those institutions of the flood of un-represented litigants which those institutions must accommodate.While courts, typically, express this issue in terms of the difficulty and awkwardness of handling these cases, there are also emerging hints of an emerging realization that it is not just about process, but also about outcomes.To put it another way, its not only a problem that litigants without lawyers confuse judges and waster court time (problems enough), but that litigants without lawyers often face unjust results, results which cast doubt on the legitimacy and efficacy of the system as a whole.[5]

These two trends promise the possibility of major transformative partnerships to provide access to courts and legal information.Indeed, many courts do already now provide access to downloadable court forms.[6]Similarly, many legal services programs already provide information about the law and legal rights,[7] and a few provide various forms on-line.[8]The more sophisticated sites that walk users through the form completion process, integrated with information about the law and the court process, remain rare.[9]

Although doubts remain,[10] as described above, experimentation and innovation are spreading.[11]

Emerging Interactive Technologies are Making Direct Access to Legal Information Easier and Easier, but Barriers Remain.

Experiments throughout Legal Services are beginning to suggest that the technology is getting easier for clients to use.Early examples of this use include the domestic violence court preparation systems in place in Georgia and New York[12], and being replicated in California and the State of Washington, the ICON video conferencing project in Florida, and the Peoples Law Library of Maryland.[13]While the early signs are encouraging, the projects are too new for full evaluation.

However, there remain three major barriers to client population use.The barriers are: access to computers, the inherently hard to use computer to person interface, and the reality of the structure of legal problem solving.As described below, two of these three barriers will dissolve over time.The third barrier may not.

Access Remains a Barrier that will Diminish Over Time

The Digital Divide is well documented.[14]Among the general legal services population (here defined for gross simplicity as less than $10,000 annual household income), approximately 12 % have a computer, and 12 % access the Internet at home or work,compared to 79% and 58% for those over $75,000.[15]However, as has been argued, there is every reason to believe that these figures will improve radically, with the rapid decline in the cost of hardware and Internet access.Moreover, the free Internet access model, while far from dominant in this country,[16] is spreading.[17]

Moreover, the rapid convergence of TV, PC’s and the Web, perhaps best exemplified by WebTV and by the recently announced takeover by America On-Line of Time Warner, makes much broader access to Internet services for the poor, over a variety of mediums, much more likely.The broad penetration of cable TV in poor neighborhoods underlines this possibility.[18]

The Interface Remains Relatively Unfriendly, Although Innovation Will Help Dissolve the Barrier Between User and Machine

Even with a touch screen, a user still needs to know how to type.Even with the still too-rarely deployed audio and video help, the user still needs to be able to read and to understand in the language and at the literacy level at which the page is designed and written.

More standardized use of touch screens, routine design for touch screen integration, more development tools that will make sure design and deployment easy, and voice recognition, particularly with centralized storage of individual voice characteristics, will all help erode these barriers.

However, continued attention will need to be paid to the barriers faced by those who have special needs.

The Barrier that Will be Hardest to Remove is the Barrier of Legal Structure and Reasoning.

When all these barriers have been removed by technical progress and institutional changes, what will remain is the difficulty that those not trained in the law always have in finding any logic in what they are required to do to assert their legal rights.The worst difficulties most people face come when they have to absorb and apply complex and counter-intuitive legal concepts to their own factual situations.(Such application of fact to law is far easier when the law seems intuitively understandable or commonsensical.)[19]

Some of the problem can be solved by careful writing and software design;information can skillfully broken up into small bits; the logic can carefully be divided, software can be written to make it easy to see and understand exactly where the user is in a process.

In the end, however, law school does stand for something – three years of tuition is surely not completely wasted – and as the legal complexity of a situation becomes greater or the educational level of the user is lower, the difficulty of using these techniques to communicate effectively declines.In the end, there are now, and may always be, limits to the ability of technology to fill the gap on its own.

While Direct Client Access will be Critical, Intermediary Organizations Provide the Key to Meeting the Need for Many Many People

Thus some individuals will be able to get the help they need from the technology alone.Others will need full representation, and technology will not change that fact.Finally there will be a large middle group that will need support and assistance is using the technology to get the legal help they need.They key to meeting the need of this group is intermediary organizations.

A wide variety of organizations have a strong interest in making sure that their members, clients, and the people with whom they work are having their legal needs met.For some organizations this interest derives directly from their own mission.A housing group, for example, needs to get and communicate information to its members about housing law; a welfare group needs to get the word out about changes in TANF to its clients.For other organizations the interest is more general.Such groups are committed to one service area, and can provide a platform for meeting general information needs.A church (perhaps with one computer in the office) might be used to tell people about benefit eligibility, or a block association might provide its members with broad information about the law.[20]

Intermediary Organizations Can Provide the Human Resources and Support, as Well as the Connectivity, to Make This Access Meaningful and Useful.

Regardless of precisely what technology is used, or even if any technology is used to speed and facilitate the process, intermediary organizations can therefore provide the critical missing components to make access meaningful and effective. Indeed, such partnerships have long been a significant, although far from dominant mode of poverty advocacy.[21]Recent general examples include the broad pattern of collaboration with the domestic violence movement, and the integrated system being developed and deployed in the State of Washington.

Even when multi-lingual content is deployed on the web, such intermediary organizations will be particularly critical in providing support and assistance to those who do not speak English.[22]

Such Partnerships can be built with a Wide Range of Organizations, from Small Community Advocacy Groups to Mainstream Institutions Such as Libraries and Schools.

Libraries and schools around the country are transforming themselves into public access centers.[23]Aware that it is not just a matter of electronic connection, and indeed that electronic connection to every home may well be achieved soon in any event, many of these organizations are coming to define their contribution to this access, seeing their role as being experts in facilitating access to, and action based on, information.As such, they engage in training of users in the particulars of the field, work with community organizations to learn the field, and help users act upon what they have learned.

Such partnerships offer the best opportunity for legal services programs to expand their reach.One model may be the plan in Orange County California to partner with the libraries to act as gateways to legal services.[24]

For Such Partnerships to Work the Needs of the Community Group Must Also be Met.

To a very great extent, these partnerships are asking the community group to do fare more than they did before[25].Often the Legal Services program is, in effect, asking the community partner to turn general counseling staff into paralegals.Even if the counseling staff play a less aggressive role, merely helping people use the computers, the effect is an increasing burden on staff who usually perceive themselves as already overloaded.

The partnerships will only work if the organizations get a lot in return.That their mission is being enhanced is not enough.They need concrete returns.Such returns might be expressed in financial terms, in concrete and countable service numbers, or in the credibility and publicity that can be turned into financial terms.But thanks is not enough.

At the Community Level, the Most Effective Model May Be the “Coach”.

The barriers of the structure of the law can be overcome by other than a law degree.Those people who know and understand a system are often the best situated to help others struggle through dealing with it.Thus the concept of the “coach” from the old days of welfare rights organizing.The “coach” was a person who had been through the same system a year or so before, and knew and understood it.The same concept could be applied at the community level to ease access to legal information.But any new model for assisting in access to legal information must come from and work for the community partners themselves.

Fascinatingly, one of the very few systematic studies of these matters, by the Law Foundation of New South Wales, concludes that lay people always prefer to get legal information from another person, rather than from paper or computer, and that they prefer assistance from a human even they do obtain information from paper or computer.[26]

“Coach Assistant” Designed Software Could be Built to Facilitate the Interaction Between the Coach and the User.

Such coach assistant software could include both advice on how to use the software and the underlying resource information.The software could also include electronic assistants that would translate legal information in different ways for different users.The software would rely on the general knowledge of the coach about the underlying system, and on the detail and the expertise built into the software for legal accuracy and comprehensiveness.Designing such software would require an interdisciplinary team familiar with the needs of the different types of collaborative users.

Any Technology Model Must be Built to Encourage Community Participation, and to help build the Partnership with Community Organizations.

Perhaps most important of all, any legal information access software must be a fundamental tool in the building of the partnership between the community organization and the legal services program.

The design and building of the software must be a process that involves all the partners.[27]The software itself must provide resources and tools that facilitate not only the work of legal representation, but the underlying self-defined tasks of the partnering organizations.The software must be built to facilitate and encourage day to day collaborations as those tasks are carried out.

A critical byproduct of these collaborations, and the technology that supports them, would be a large scale database about out clients and their ever changing problems.Such a database would provide a transformative management tool and advocacy opportunity, and would help move legal services to becoming a much more self reflective community.

Any Technology Must Reflect the Understanding the Information is Only the First Need; Full Access to Justice Requires Much More.

The first focus in the Internet has been on providing access to information, and most of those who seek to use the Internet to meet legal needs think first in these terms.However, any new system must be built with a recognition that effective access to justice requires that people can file pleadings (initiating and responsive), prepare for hearings and the presentation of evidence, and enforce the remedies that they have obtained.Where they can not proceed without human assistance, they need help in obtaining that assistance.Any system must be built so that it encourages experimentation with such components, and so that new solutions to meeting these needs can be integrated into the already functioning system.

All the Same Principles Apply to Collaborations with Courts

Courts provide the limiting and best example of these principles.Governed by strong cultures with a history of independence – indeed superiority, they are becoming increasingly interdependent with the community around them, and slowly being forced to recognize that interdependence.They are, for most poor people, the unavoidable gateway into the legal system.

As such they are critical partners, but they are partners whose particular needs must be recognized and met.

In particular, relationships must be built so that the courts principles of neutrality can be recognized, while their obligations of engagement and assistance can be met.Meeting these needs will require creative methods of collaboration.[28]


There is no doubt of the massive client need.There is no doubt of either the absolute incapacity of the existing system to meet that need, or of the huge resources of legal insight and understanding that legal services organizations could bring toward meeting that need.There are important possibilities for the legal services network to combine that resources with technology, in appropriate collaboration with a range of community and court partners, to meet the need.The intellectual and political success of these possibilities depends on designing systems in which different modes of helping people are fully integrated, with the most appropriate help being given to all groups.

The task is to develop the standards, the tools, the institutional relationships, and the support mechanisms to make all that happen.

Copyright Reserved 2000

[1]The data is explored in many national and state studies, perhaps most notably in The Findings of the Comprehensive Legal Needs Study, American Bar Association, 1994.
[2]There are some disturbing indications that many legal services providers have radically reduced their involvement in this income maintenance area.These reductions appear to be explained by fear of running afoul of the 1996 restrictions, and by a sense that “nothing we do will make much difference” to individuals.The twin realities of course are that the restrictions, while far from desirable, need not prevent effective advocacy, and that creative, albeit sometimes not “legal” in the traditional sense, advocacy can make a huge difference to the lives of clients.In terms of the likely impact on the lives of the poor, the need is now greater than ever.
[3]The Findings of the Comprehensive Legal Needs Study, American Bar Association, 1994, at 18.
[4]The 1996 restrictions, while often devastating in the short term and obviously motivated by the worst of reasons, may well be seen in hindsight as critical in making this important intellectual realignment possible.By making it difficult for federally funded programs to engage in law reform in the ways that they had done so in the past, and impossible for them to engage in certain kinds of work, the restrictions triggered the largest program restructuring in the history of the delivery system.These changes enabled the LSC funded programs to focus on a mission of individual client service delivery.Put bluntly, it made it harder for programs to live with themselves while meeting only a small percentage of need.Of course, the role of the Corporation, particularly with its mandated participation in a state planning process, was absolutely critical to this intellectual realignment.
[5]Goldschmidt, et al., Meeting the Challenge of Pro Se Litigation: A Report and Guidebook for Judges and Court Managers, American Judicature Society, 1998.
[6]The National Center for State Courts operates a gateway to some of the best of these sites at
[7]The best listing of legal services sites is collected by Pinetree Legal Assistance and is at
[8]The most highly developed example is Pinetree Legal Services at
[9]The Georgia Legal Services Program domestic violence site can be accessed at equivalent New York site is at
[10]The doubts, expressed more frequently orally than in writing, may be summarized as follows: that this kind of representation does not help clients ( or at least Legal Services clients), and that this mode of assistance is wrongly diverting resources from the more important and more effective traditional comprehensive model.
[11]The recent Technology appropriation is proofof the growing acceptance of these trends within both the management of LSC and Congress.
[12]See above note.
[13] site contains substantial information about a number of areas of law.
[14]Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide, United States Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, 1999,, however, that a recent Price Waterhouse report concluded that inner city residents who have Internet access use more rather than less e-commerce than others with Internet access. (report in San Jose Mercury).
[15]These figures are for 1998, and derive from the charts to the above NTIA report.
[16]In much of Europe the “free” model dominates.Except that it is far from free.European phone users pay marginal usage costs.A percentage of this cost is paid by the phone provider to the “free” Internet service provider.
[17]See, for example, and other similar sites derive their income, and support their modem pools, from revenue from advertisements.Netzero users endure a constant banner on the user’s screen.The banner can not be closed or minimized. For a comprehensive list of these free providers, see
[18]The reasons for this penetration are suggestive.Poor people bought TVs for a variety of reasons, but undoubtedly one of them was the fact that for relatively small investments they could obtain a permanent entertainment source.A dubious, if effective, network of consumer credit institutions made the capital expenditures possible.Once the infrastructure was in place (people owned TVs), then marketing of a monthly fee for additional service (cable TV or “premium content”) became possible.Many poor people regard cable as a highly cost effective childcare tool.Given the choice of a child at risk on the streets, or at home watching a premium cable channel, the choice of many parents makes a lot of sense.
[19]Thus, for example, making sense of service of process of the demand for payment in order to defend against an eviction, is particularly hard, while the frequent requirement of an act of physical violence as a prerequisite to issuance of a domestic violence protective order makes every sense to lay people.
[20]It has also been suggested that such intermediary organizations can be the print locatins, placds at which people pick up information found or ordered over the net, by phone, or by other interaction.
[21]This history began early in Legal Services.
[22]A current example is the collaboration of a number of multi-lingual domestic vioelcne programs, including the Park Slope Safe Homes Project in Brooklyn, with the New York Internet Domestic Violence Project.
[23]Concerns have been raised about the susceptibility of these organizations, particularly schools, to political pressure.
[24]Legal Services programs in California are engaged in the early stages of the development of an Internet-based expert system to support such a gateway.
[25]This is particularly a problem for organizations that do not have a focused mission that is related to legal services.
[26]On-line Legal Access Project, Law Foundation of New South Wales,
[27]Vimarlund and Timpka Participatory Design in Economic Terms: A Theoretical Discussion, Published in; PDC 98, Proceedings of Participatory Design Conference, (pp.11-17).R. Chatfield., S. Kuhn., & M. Muller (Eds.).Seattle, Washington, USA 12-14 November 1998.
However, the design process must be carefully organization, and must avoid the problem of “feature creep” in which more and more features are added to keep everyone happy.
[28]These collaboration needs are discussed, both generally with respect to all potential collaborating organizations, and specifically with respect to courts, in Paper Six.