Community partners can be providers of content, consumers of content, and shapers of content.But much more important, they can become collaborators in the process of using content to help solve the legal problems of poor and middle income people.Moreover, in the process of that collaboration, we can move toward erasing the current political and ideological barriers between poor and middle income legal consumers.By so doing we can help build the political support for the systems that meet all of these inter-related needs.
Below are detailed discussions of various of the potential community partners, of what they would bring to the partnership, of what they would need for the partnership to work, of models of how the partnerships might work, and of the overall implications of each potential partnership.
Moreover, we know that electronic access is often not enough.Those in nee of legal information may not yet be sophisticated or technologically experienced enough to manage the access process on their own.It is thus particularly encouraging that many libraries are coming to experiment with a much broader view of their access role.In Brooklyn NY, for example the public library, in cooperation with a group called Libraries for the Future, has set up a project in which the libraries are used as on-line health information centers.A network of 30 community organizations feeds people to the libraries and at the libraries a trained staff person assists them to locate the on-line health information that they need.This is clearly an important model for potential similar legal information access sites at libraries and other similar institutions.
In a similar project, the Orange County California Public Library has announced a partnership with the local legal services program in which the legal services program, in cooperation with the court and local domestic violence program, will program court access software, and the library will offer the access and assistance that the client population needs to make use of this software.The first planned modules are domestic violence and eviction defense.
If libraries are to function well as legal public information sites, the following tools and approaches will help build and facilitate the partnerships needed.
·Ease of access software
·Tools to manage paper and printing (a major library issue)
·Training systems to bring library staff up to speed
·Writing software that is easy for volunteers to use as they help those in need
·Making sure that “unauthorized practice of law” issues are resolved
·Developing model court-library-legal service-community organization partnerships so that these are seen as politically low risk.
As they expand onto the Internet, unions will want to make sure that their sites feature the kind of services and help that members need.If not, members will ignore the Internet web front page that the union offers, and go straight to Excite or some other portal.
There are two important potential points of partnership entry into the union network.The first is the new plan of the AFL-CIO to create an internet provider service that will give members low cost access to the Internet, and bring union users to a uniform entry portal. The AFL plan to provide Internet access to millions of union members provides a potentially huge access partnership for any legal services legal information project.
The second point of entry is the significant union investment in pre-paid legal service plans.This commitment has resulted, particularly on the part of the UAW, in significant software development.Thus both access and content partnerships are realistic and potentially very useful.
The legal information content developed by these union prepaid plans offers the basis for a long term natural partnership.Unions have a similar target population, every interest in sharing their material, and no real competitive reason to hold that information close.Rather, they have every interest in making the information that they do have as accessible as possible to their members.Since, as a general matter, they have tended to develop materials for their attorneys rather than for their members, a partnership structured around making that information more directly accessible both to union members and a broader in-need population would serve everyone.Indeed, unions might regard public credit for such information as providing a useful public image enhancement and recruitment tool.
Pension plans share many of the same interests, and would provide a more focused but general partnership opportunity.
For such partnerships with unions to come to pass, the following would be helpful:
·Structuring on-line gateways to information to reflect union membership concerns.
·Identification of, and focusing on, on-line self-help material relating to issues of special union concern
·Figuring out what unions as institutions can gain from this partnership
·Linking to training programs for union members
In summary, unions provide a potential key ally for maximizing the power and use of any integrated solution.
AARP, like the unions, offers internet access to its members.Like the unions, AARP has a massive membership, with a generally, but not exclusively progressive bent. Its members share a general set of policy interests, although they do not necessarily vote in accordance with their leaders interpretations of those interests.Interestingly, there is research that suggests that lower income seniors are less frustrated by the process of mastering the technology that higher income seniors.
Perhaps more significantly, AARP, through its legal service plans, already controls a huge mine of state-specific legal content.The AARP legal services hotlines, now operating in many states, are backed up by substantial pro-se and attorney oriented materials.This material is in the process of being made specific to state law.When fully state-specific, it will provide an excellent basis for a national on-line library of on-line content.(Of course the material is focused on the concerns of the elderly, and would need to be supplemented with additional topics.)
Finally, although not directly associated with AARP, seniors enjoy a massive network of service organizations, reaching into every community, and usually with a physical manifestation (a senior “drop-in” or community center), a paid staff, often supplemented with volunteers, and enormous public sympathy.These programs, with their professional but legally untrained staff, would be ideal gateways into legal Internet content.
Partnerships with elder-serving organizations will be facilitated by:
·Design that is sensitive to the special visual and access needs of the elderly.
·Content that reflects the legal problems of the aging population
·Access methodologies that are sensitive to the professional and volunteer staffs that serve the elderly.
·Cooperation in content development and integration that reflects the substantial base of already developed content aimed at this population.
Both groups, and others like them, could become critical partners in the deployment of accessible legal content.As experts in getting urban dwellers on the net, and providing the support that is needed to make that access meaningful they would play a critical role.For such organizations, partnership with legal content providers would give them the tools to show the critical relevance of their work to the day to day lives of the people they serve.
Collaboration with such groups will be facilitated by the following:
·Attention of software designers to needs of such consumers
·Analysis of how to link the content sites with the community organizations’ sites.
·Focus on content that meets the needs of partner organizations
If it were possible to create a collective connection to this group, or to a significant portion of its members, that would provide dramatic leveraging of access to the content.Specifically, many of these organizations have hundreds of member or affiliates organizations, and many of them are slowly realizing the potential of the Internet to transform the lives of the people with which they work.The Girl Scouts, for example, as well as using the web to promote itself and recruit members, has programmed its site with specialized information and connection opportunities for its GirlScout members.
Many of these organizations target the poor and middle income group as among those they serve.Others serve people who work with or seek themselves to be of help to the target population.In either event, the potential of partnering exists.While the nature of such partnering will depend on the mission of the individual organization or network, the following will be helpful in bringing such partnering to fruition.
·Developing legal content so that it appeals to, and helps, different constituencies
·Developing the content system so that it can be integrated into the display systems of other web sources.In this way a new legal site could provide the legal content for the client serving web sites of many different kinds of organizations.
·Developing outreach materials so that other groups will want to develop such relationships with a new legal information system.
Indeed, there are many reasons for this natural partnership:Legal service and Community Programs bring a wide range of resources including skill and experience in the substantive areas and the techniques of communicating to the pro se population.It is only legal services and community programs which really know the poor.Courts must be careful not to build pro se programs that work only for people who have the resources to hire lawyers anyway, just choose not to.Like courts, Legal Service programs are obliged to plan for and take responsibility for everyone, not just for individual clients.
However, there are powerful cultural barriers to effective collaboration.Courts must preserve the judges’ role as a neutral arbiters – but that that does prevent courts as institutions from helping making sure that everyone has the best chance to tell their story to that arbiter.Limitations on the Judge’s role do not necessarily extend to all in the court house.
Similarly, Legal Services Programs are advocates for poor clients – but that does not stop them from working with Courts to make sure that pro se programs are seen as fully consistent with the neutral role of judges.They can contribute to pro se programs without becoming arms of the court, or captives of the court, or captors of the court.Their contribution will always have a flexibility that the court can never have.
Moving forward on collaboration will require:
·Identification of national network partners
·Figuring out how the collaboration can preserve the neutral roles of courts while taking advantage of their critical role in the legal decision-making process
·Learning how to create sites that do advocacy, yet are acceptable to courts
·Figuring out the roles and relationships that will support this partnership.
·Model partnerships that are carefully structured, and designed for replication
·Involving local bar and communities in these partnerships
Many of the local nonprofit support groups are now becoming actively involved in technology support.Moreover, many new technology support groups are being formed.Examples are N-Power in Seattle, and DC Works in Washington DC.
These groups, now coalescing into a network will provide the parallel access support that a system as ambitious as the one needed to distribute legal content will require.
The system under consideration needs to be able to make use of the legal content generated by these many organizations, and also to distribute to as broad an audience as possible the combined legal service and issue driven network content.Probono.net is a good example of the use of technology by a central group that enables smaller issue groups to get their word out in an integrated way.
Effective collaboration with these groups will require the kind of electronic linkage that allows groups to make what use they want of information, without surrendering control to an outside entity.
There are in place numerous networks of progressive educators, concerned with the huge potential of the Internet to expand education. Moreover, there are many school systems that have grasped this potential, and are working to make the resource as broadly available as possible.Government and the private sector has collaborated with particular intensity to make this access point available.The StreetLaw program has shown the power of legal content in this educational environment.
This there will be no problem finding model partners.The greater difficulty will be finding those partners in jurisdictions in which the other partners are ready for experimentation.For such partnerships to work, the following will be helpful:
·Software that works with young people and reflects their media expectations
·Content that reflects the legal interests of young people
·Content and design that is built around the idea of a young computer savvy person working on line with an older person who has the legal problem.
·Design that deals with the problem of teacher supervision
At both the national and local level, many bar associations have developed pro se or legal information materials.Such material could well be integrated into a more comprehensive system.In addition, the bar associations offer various forms of lawyer referral system.These systems could be integrated into an attorney advertising system that might finance the whole project.One advantage would be that a different non-legal services entity would then take responsibility for all the politically complicated issues deriving from the possible need to screen attorneys.
Most importantly, however, at both the state and local levels, bar associations can provide the leadership that would make a project such as this of use to, rather than a threat to, the organized bar.
Thus the example of the state of Washington, with its Access to Justice Board, a partnership of the judiciary, legal services, and the bar, provides an important basis on which to build.That Board regards access to justice as a high priority of the State Bar (as well as the other players) and is already engaged in a wide variety of technology and non-technology projects to engage as many groups as possible in providing access to justice.
For such collaboration to work, the following would need to be addressed:
·A structure of information that integrates existing bar information
·A structure that provides access to information for private lawyers
·Systems that help those who need and can afford private lawyers get to those lawyers
·Building it so that it increases rather than threatens the role and legitimacy of the private bar.
Law schools could also expand their clinics to be provide legal information access points, and the clinic students could help clients use the system.Indeed, one way of looking at the software would be as a tool to make sure that student advice was high quality and reliable.Generally the main interest of law schools is likely to be providing their students an opportunity for real world practice engagement.
This may lead to the conclusion that not one, but several different gateways to the same information are required.Indeed, that the information should be structured so that it can be accessed and structured in a myriad of ways.That, of course, is what the Internet and particularly XML are all about.The challenge is to create the data structures and the front ends that are flexible to meet these myriad needs, while being easy enough to manage and distribute widely.
Compared, however, to the other organizations in the neighborhoods which they serve, the legal services program is often “high tech.”It is the legal services program that has the office network and the Internet connection.It is the legal services program that has someone trained as a network administrator, and it is the legal services program that is connected to a larger statewide network of technology resources.
In the partnerships that may develop, the legal services community brings its technology leadership as an asset.
The task of building a system that engages the enthusiasm, data and potential of even a small portion will be difficult, but the payoff is potentially transformative in terms of expanding the reach of legal services to poor and middle income people, and the political and social power of the ideas that lie behind those service.
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