Even before the pandemic led courts to completely shutter or severely limit services, Pro Bono Net’s technology was taking root in District of Columbia Courts, helping individuals navigate the domestic violence process.
Legal services organizations were already seeing an increase in domestic violence matters nationwide, with more than 137,000 cases handled by Legal Services Corporation-funded agencies in 2019. That’s the highest number of cases recorded by LSC since the organization began collecting data almost a decade ago. LSC Chair John Levi expects an even higher number in 2020 because of evidence of spikes in reported domestic violence incidents during stay-at-home orders.
This pre-pandemic increase in volume combined with an increase in the number of individuals seeking to represent themselves in court prompted the DC courts to beef up their self-help offerings.
By March, Forms Help Online contained 26 guided interviews (plus 26 in Spanish) with automated document assembly for those seeking the court’s domestic violence services.
Because the courts already had Pro Bono Net’s document assembly technology in place, they were able to quickly pivot to provide remote court services during the pandemic.
“The DC courts were able to maintain and expand services because they already adopted a model to help people where they are,” said Mirenda Meghelli, LawHelp Interactive’s Partnerships Manager.
Helping people where they are — rather than forcing them to travel to and physically navigate the courts for fairly routine filings — is what LawHelp Interactive’s interview and document assembly services aim to do.
Although Pro Bono Net didn’t have the pandemic in mind when developing this technology, it was built precisely to accommodate remote use by individuals seeking service, and fortuitously, court clerks.
“We wanted to use this technology opportunity as a way to increase access to justice for people with legal needs in the District,” Meghelli said. “We also wanted to use this opportunity to strengthen collaboration between community justice stakeholders both inside and outside of the courts.”
To date, the project has resulted in more than 9,000 interviews and over 4,400 forms generated since its launch in October 2018.
“As laid out in the [Court’s] strategic plan, the DC Courts are committed to enhancing access to justice and providing resources for self-represented litigants. Forms Help Online is an integral initiative in carrying out those goals,” said José Idler, program & project manager at the District of Columbia Courts.
To create the service, Pro Bono Net identified which forms needed to be automatic, then worked with the Court of Appeals and domestic violence, family, probate, and civil divisions to refine the list. Working the Capstone Practice Systems, document assembly draft interviews were created for division review. Interviews were updated based on court and external feedback as well as a professional plain language assessment. Each interview was translated into Spanish by a professional translator (and that translation was validated by the court’s Office of Interpreting Services).
In addition to overseeing the project, the District of Columbia Courts offered legal substantive expertise, testing, feedback, outreach, marketing, and other project support. Numerous organizations assisted in the project, including the DC Bar Pro Bono Center, the Office of the Attorney General, DC Volunteers Lawyers Project, UDC David Clarke School of Law, George Washington Law School, DC SAFE, Legal Aid Society, Law Students in Court, and the Children’s Law Center. Their involvement included substantive review and feedback on the interviews created.
The D.C. Access to Justice Commission and the DC Consortium of Legal Services Providers were also engaged to improve accuracy and the project’s visibility in the community.