Sarah Coffey Bowes, Executive Director, Civil Justice
Alexa Bertinelli, Esq., Managing Attorney, Civil Justice
Joseph Schieffer, Founder & CEO – A2J Tech
Marylanders searching for affordable legal assistance face a complex network of court, non-profit and private legal services providers. For those who cannot afford the fees typically charged by private attorneys, they may face high-stakes legal matters, such as the loss of a home to foreclosure, custody of a child, or garnishment of wages, alone. A new initiative in Maryland, the Maryland Justice Passport, uses technology to connect Marylanders with effective legal help.
THE NEED IN MARYLAND
The need for access to affordable legal assistance is great. A 2017 study found that 71% of low-income American households experienced at least one civil legal problem. Demand for services at the Maryland Court Help Centers (“the Court Help Centers”), providesoffers insight to the need for affordable help here in Maryland. Offering extended hours and free services without income qualifications, the Court Help Centers serve as a convenient on-ramp for Marylanders seeking help with their civil legal problem. Attorneys at the statewide network of court-based centers provide brief advice in-person and remotely in a broad range of legal matters. In Fiscal Year 2020, the Court Help Centers provided more than 140,600 instances of service. In June 2021 alone, the Centers received over 11,000 requests for help including:
- 8,391 phone calls,
- 1,091 live chat sessions, and
- 1,633 visits to walk-in locations.
While brief advice is readily available in Maryland, data shows that few Marylanders can obtain legal help beyond brief advice. For example, in FY’20, at least one party was unrepresented at some stage of 83% of Maryland domestic cases. Unfortunately, one of the most common reasons that low-income Americans do not seek legal help is because they do not know where to look or are unsure of what resources might be available.
Thankfully, in Maryland there is a robust network of more than 40 legal services organizations providing free and affordable assistance to Marylanders of low and moderate incomes. As our legal services ecosystem has evolved, however, each organization has developed its own intake procedure and case management system. Unrepresented persons seeking assistance from those organizations must apply to each individual organization for assistance. Litigants, struggling to find time between work and childcare and other responsibilities, can become frustrated and overwhelmed by this process, often losing track of which resources they’ve already contacted. Given the high-stakes nature of their legal problems, these Marylanders may also be retraumatized from having to re-tell their stories over and over.
Maryland’s diverse network of legal services providers is not unique. Both here in Maryland and throughout the country – advocates are working to improve how the unrepresented find effective legal assistance efficiently. Technology efforts in Minnesota, Washington, D.C. and here in Maryland offer potential solutions.
COORDINATED INTAKE EFFORTS:
In order to help unrepresented parties successfully navigate the wide range of legal services options available to them, Washington, D.C. and Minnesota have are undertaking efforts to coordinate intake across their jurisdictions. While the effort in Washington, D.C. is in its infancy, Minnesota’s effort is progressing to maturity. By funneling intake for all service providers through one location, access to justice advocates hope to make the full range of legal assistance available to the unrepresented through a central location.
In 2017, Minnesota released the “Analysis of the Civil Legal Aid Intake Infrastructure in Minnesota Final Report.” This report was prompted by Chief Justice Lorie S. Gilead’s directive that the Legal Services Advisory Committee (LSAC), which makes grants to legal services programs, to investigate coordinated intake amongst legal services organizations. One of the report’s recommendations was:
“Staged development of a centralized capacity through which persons with legal needs can access the system and be transferred to an appropriate source of help, or be told at the earliest opportunity if no assistance is available.”
By the end of 2020, Minnesota’s legal services community had employed technology to:
- Complete the transition to a single, statewide, case management system;
- Complete a centralized telephone intake pilot project;
- Refine a statewide legal referral policy
- Create a fully integrated online intake system.
Efforts in Minnesota to improve access to legal services are further supported by the state’s recent kiosk project. Minnesota’s Legal Kiosk Project, an initiative of the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition, rolled out over 270 legal kiosks across the state to address the digital divide exacerbated by the pandemic and disproportionately impacting the communities serviced by legal aid.
Legal kiosks are stationed in a variety of court, library, service provider agencies, and other non-profit locations to give communities access to civil justice. Legal kiosks provide Minnesotans without wifi or technology at home a place to access information and services. They can apply for free legal help, fill out forms, and attend virtual court hearings or meetings with an attorney. Since legal kiosks are essentially computers connected to the internet, users of the kiosks can browse topics on LawHelpMN, the statewide law help website, check their email, and other functions that may not be considered strictly legal, such as applying for jobs.
The Maryland Justice Passport
Here in Maryland, advocates are developing technology to empower unrepresented litigants to successfully navigate the legal services delivery system. Currently, the Maryland Judiciary is funding the development of the Maryland Justice Passport (“the Passport”). The Passport is a trauma-informed digital portfolio where Marylanders can:
- Store a case summary;
- House important case documents and evidence in one digital location;
- Keep track of dates and deadlines and which organizations they have contacted; and
- Maintain and update tasks associated with their legal issue.
In addition, litigants can grant legal services organizations temporary access to their Passport, so that intake staff and legal advocates can easily access their documents and case information. Further, when an organization uses the Passport to refer the litigant to another provider, the system can notify the receiving provider of the referral.
The Passport is being developed by Civil Justice, Inc. (CJ), a Maryland legal services non-profit committed to increasing access to justice. CJ has partnered with A2J Tech, a Colorado-based social enterprise that builds technology to improve access to justice. Led by Joseph Schieffer, A2J Tech is primarily responsible for designing and implementing technology enhancements on the Passport.
- Can be created by a litigant or by a service provider on the litigant’s behalf;
- Once created, remains in the control of the litigant.
- Can be continually updated with new information, documents, dates, and deadlines.
- Can be shared by the litigant with other legal services providers who can review the information and documents in the litigant’s Passport.
- With the litigant’s consent, notifies organizations that the litigant is being referred to the organization.
The Passport team currently partners with several legal and social service organizations who are creating Passports for their clients and receiving referrals via the Passport. The organizations provide valuable feedback and recommendations for enhancements that will make the Passport more powerful. Current collaborators include the Maryland Center for Legal Assistance (MCLA), Community Legal Services of Prince George’s County, and Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Maryland and Delaware, Inc. In addition to existing partners, the Passport team hosts quarterly stakeholder meetings for organizations who are interested in learning more about the Passport and staying updated on the project’s progress. Attendees from more than 10 other Maryland organizations as well as representatives from the National Center for State Courts regularly attend the quarterly meetings.
Legal issues rarely exist on their own and Marylanders often need non-legal assistance to help resolve the total issue. Further, many people often struggle to recognize that their problems have a legal dimension and non-legal professions therefore play an important role in connecting them to legal resources. The Passport has shown its value as a tool to refer litigants to and from other services. For example, Consumer Credit Counseling Services of Maryland and Delaware, Inc., uses the Passport to refer clients for legal assistance, and accepts clients for financial counseling via the Passport, as well.
Currently, the Court Help Centers are creating an impressive number of Passports. At the close of July 2021, 321 Passports have been created for Marylanders seeking additional legal assistance. As eviction and foreclosure moratorium lift, the Passport team believes that the volume of Passports will continue to increase. Anticipating a surge in demand for foreclosure-related services, the Passport team is working with Maryland’s network of housing counseling services providers to determine how the Passport can support services for financially-distressed families in danger of losing their homes. The Passport, which can house a case summary and essential documents such as court pleadings and servicing agreements, can dramatically improve the ability of Marylanders families to efficiently navigate a range of foreclosure-related services, and reduce precious time that might be lost re-telling their stories and sorting through mountains of paperwork.
Should you have questions about the Maryland Justice Passport please visit Mdjusticepassport.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org