Computer program helps the poor get their day in court
Monday, September 24, 2007
- Organization: Chicago Tribune
When served with an eviction notice or other legal document, a poor person cannot afford to hire a lawyer and seldom knows much about how to represent himself in court, but he may get help from a computer.
Increasingly, state and local legal aid groups across the country are spreading technology pioneered in Chicago to help people represent themselves in court by consulting with a computer rather than a lawyer. A tool called A2J, for access to justice, grew out of a study conducted seven years ago by faculty and students at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.
The study found there aren't enough lawyers available to help the needy with legal problems, and that technology could help. Web pages can explain a person's rights and options under various legal scenarios, said Ron Staudt, Kent associate vice president for law, business and technology.
The A2J software, built by the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction, is a spinoff from software designed to help teach law students. It asks questions in plain English and assembles information used to produce a legal document that can be filed in court.
Staudt said computers at the Daley Center offer the A2J program, and Kent law students are there to help people use it. The most common thing people do is apply to the court to let them file answers to evictions and make court appearances without paying the standard court fees, he said.
Other common applications include preparing letters to collection agencies that tell them to stop harassment and creating a health-care power of attorney.
This year the Legal Services Corp. has allocated $2.1 million in grants, a majority of the money to help expand self-representation programs for poor litigants. The group estimates that the A2J program and another piece of software called HotDocs have been used by poor litigants and pro bono lawyers to generate more than 70,000 legal documents.
Staudt said he envisions expanding the A2J concept as a way of interviewing people seeking to use a variety of government agencies.
"It's a guided interview that walks you through data collection," he said. "These programs could be online and available through computers at the agencies. Someone who goes to the Social Security office to apply for benefits could do a self-interview on a computer to provide the needed information. This would leverage the time for the professionals working at the agencies."
If computers can help poor people create legal documents and represent themselves in court, might this spread to the middle class?
Staudt said computer programs are used by lawyers to create documents and likely will spread to include computerized interviews to gather information from clients before they see an attorney.
Kent students continue to build applications using the A2J model, he said.
Information about the program is available at www.kent law.edu/cajt/A2JAuthor .html.