Pandemic Propels Innovations for Justice
New report from the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System (IAALS) outlines how the global pandemic served as the catalyst for important changes to the American Legal System – and provides a blueprint for duplicating those advances.
In the year 2020, the American legal system discovered its own strength, some weaknesses, and the power of adaptability.
As social distancing protocols caused judicial institutions throughout the country to close, the legal system – including courts, attorneys, and legal aid providers – quickly began to restructure their processes in order to continue serving the public.
With over 70% of civil and family cases involving at least one self-represented party, these efforts have emphasized access to information for self- represented individuals.
Using simple tools like phone lines and email in new ways, many individual organizations were able to create infrastructure for emerging needs quickly and with minimal disruption. Newer technologies such as the now ubiquitous video-conferencing platforms allowed legal aid to transition to a remote format and continue providing much needed services.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR INDIVIDUALS THROUGHOUT THE U.S. AND OREGON RESIDENTS SPECIFICALLY?
The new report from IAALS, PANDEMIC POSITIVES, aims to highlight real life examples of improvements made within the judicial system through the use of virtual services. IAALS reached out to organizations demonstrating a strong ability to adapt.
TECHNOLOGY IN THE JUSTICE SYSTEM
The Alaska Self-Help Center will be using Zoom to broadcast a formerly in-person family law education class; and the Utah Supreme Court was able to create infrastructure for virtual hearings that not only decreased the backlog of hearings, but brought the large number of failure-to-appear rates to almost zero.
Among the organizations contacted by IAALS, was the Deschutes County Access to Justice Committee. David Rosen, Chair of the Committee and Jenny Pedersen, Community Librarian and Committee Member provided details on Deschutes County’s successful transitions.
“The Deschutes County Access to Justice Committee, in partnership with area libraries, runs a weekly Lawyer in the Library program, where individuals can receive free 30-minute consultations with an attorney on a variety of areas of law. When pandemic restrictions went into place, the library’s Zoom subscription was used to continue the program remotely on the same evening it was previously offered in person.” – Pandemic Positives, p3
Not all innovations are based in technological advancement. To get the word out, help centers such as law libraries are rediscovering old ways of dispersing information, with simple signage outside their offices, as well as press releases for the sole purpose of highlighting phone numbers and email addresses. Other offices are using social media updates to spread the word about new programs.
Prior to the pandemic, providing in-person services was a simple alternative for those with limited access to, or limited levels of comfort with technology. While some organizations were able to continue limited in-person availability, for others, ensuring continued service has required more creativity and led to unexpected flexibility.
“The Pima County Law Library manages a pickup station that sits right outside of the courthouse. Self-represented litigants can pick up forms and other self-help materials without being inconvenienced by checkpoint security and temperature stands, and it limits their exposure to others.” – PP, p6
PARTNERSHIPS IN THE JUSTICE SYSTEM
As organizations face staffing restrictions and limitations such as limited phone lines, partnerships supporting the needs of legal service providers and the self-represented litigants that they help, have become a vital part of the solution.
Pennsylvania’s PLA reached out to law schools, large law firms, and the Philadelphia Bar Association to find volunteers willing to help with their increased need in helping people apply for unemployment benefits.
For large organizations, interdepartmental communication has been just as instrumental in making smooth transitions for all involved.
Once again Deschutes County was ahead of the curve.
“In 2016 the Deschutes County Law Library moved from the county’s offices to the public library. This transfer allowed the Law Library to remain open for more hours per week, providing self-represented litigants with increased access. In 2017, the Access to Justice Committee created the Lawyer in the Library program mentioned above, and it was this same partnership that determined they could use Zoom as a solution to keep running the Lawyer in the Library program.” – PP, p10
JUSTICE FOR OREGON RESIDENTS
In 2018 the Oregon Law Foundation commissioned a report measuring the civil legal needs of low income Oregonians.
“75% of study participants reported experiencing at least one civil legal problem in the preceding 12 months with the average low-income household experiencing 5.4 civil legal problems over the last year.”*
David Rosen, Chair of the Deschutes County Access to Justice Committee, addresses the impact of the pandemic on Oregon residents:
“When the pandemic hit, it was very clear that there was going to be an uptick in the need for particular areas of law such as employment, landlord-tenant, and abuse prevention. Moreover, it was further clear that this need would disproportionately impact low income Oregonians.
Very early on, our Committee coordinated with the local Circuit Court to ensure that information about the Court and the type of cases being heard was made publicly available. Legal Aid provided vital Covid-related legal resources, which the Committee pushed out to the Community. The Committee felt that the gap in accurate information concerning the courts and changing laws was the first step in addressing the Access to Justice gap furthered by Covid. The next step was to get our Lawyer in the Library program up and running over Zoom – and for individuals who did not have access to Zoom, by telephone.
Because of our partnership with the Deschutes County Public Library and the extraordinary efforts of Jenny Pedersen, Committee member and County Librarian, we were able to seamlessly transition our program onto Zoom, and along with it our attorney volunteers. The Library worked quickly to get all of our forms online so that both attorneys and participants had immediate access. The work by the Committee and the attorney volunteers, was a great example of the legal community coming together, acting quickly, and ensuring folks had a place to go to get their legal questions addressed.”
INNOVATIONS FOR JUSTICE
By answering challenges with lasting solutions – the American Legal System is building a stronger and more adaptable system while providing a model for constructive change.
“No court or legal service provider would say that the abrupt nature with which their organization was forced to go remote was ideal, and while we all hope that one day we can gather together in large groups like we used to, we have learned as an industry that there are significant benefits to providing remote services. Self-represented litigants can have greater access to the help they need and can feel safer and more secure by receiving that help from the comfort of their own home.” – Pandemic Positives, Conclusion
ABOUT DAVID ROSEN
David Rosen, personal injury lawyer and founder of High Desert Law in Bend, OR; is co-founder and current Chair of the Access to Justice Committee in Deschutes County which created the Lawyer in the Library program, providing free legal consultations each week at the Deschutes County Library. In the past two years, ATJ has also partnered with the Oregon Judicial Department to create a pilot program to bring access to court documents to rural libraries. This new geographic access to court records removes a significant barrier in equal access to justice for Central Oregon. Most recently, Rosen was elected to serve on the Oregon State Bar Board of Governors and as President of the Oregon Law Foundation.
IAALS, the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System, is a national, independent research center at the University of Denver dedicated to facilitating continuous improvement and advancing excellence in the American legal system.
PANDEMIC POSITIVES: EXTENDING THE REACH OF COURT AND LEGAL SERVICES, a tool put out by IAALS provides a guide to help judges, lawyers, court administrators, and others to understand the problems facing the court system and the people who use it; and supports real change to increase access.
*BARRIERS TO JUSTICE: A 2018 STUDY MEASURING THE CIVIL LEGAL NEEDS OF LOW-INCOME OREGONIANS