The Legal Information Needs of Poor and Middle Income People and the Organizations
that Advocate for Them
Richard Zorza, Esq.
One: Client and Community Organization
Needs and Potential
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.
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
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.
This Unmet Need Runs Across a Broad Spectrum
of Client Groups and Legal Problems.
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.The
needs of middle income families are hardly better met.
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
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
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.
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.
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.Similarly,
many legal services programs already provide information about the law
and legal rights,
and a few provide various forms on-line.The
more sophisticated sites that walk users through the form completion process,
integrated with information about the law and the court process, remain
as described above, experimentation and innovation are spreading.
Emerging Interactive Technologies are Making
Direct Access to Legal Information Easier and Easier, but Barriers Remain.
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,
and being replicated in California and the State of Washington, the ICON
video conferencing project in Florida, and the Peoples Law Library of Maryland.While
the early signs are encouraging, the projects are too new for full evaluation.
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
Digital Divide is well documented.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.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,
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.
The Interface Remains Relatively Unfriendly,
Although Innovation Will Help Dissolve the Barrier Between User and Machine
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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
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.
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.
Intermediary Organizations Can Provide the
Human Resources and Support, as Well as the Connectivity, to Make This
Meaningful and Useful.
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.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.
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.
Such Partnerships can be built with a Wide
Range of Organizations, from Small Community Advocacy Groups to Mainstream
Institutions Such as Libraries and Schools.
and schools around the country are transforming themselves into public
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.
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.
For Such Partnerships to Work the Needs of
the Community Group Must Also be Met.
a very great extent, these partnerships are asking the community group
to do fare more than they did before.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.
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”.
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.
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.
“Coach Assistant” Designed Software Could be
Built to Facilitate the Interaction Between the Coach and the User.
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
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.
design and building of the software must be a process that involves all
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.
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
Any Technology Must Reflect the Understanding
the Information is Only the First Need; Full
Access to Justice Requires Much More.
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
All the Same Principles Apply to Collaborations
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.
such they are critical partners, but they are partners whose particular
needs must be recognized and met.
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.
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.
task is to develop the standards, the tools, the institutional relationships,
and the support mechanisms to make all that happen.