Diversity & Inclusion

These 7 legal hacks are providing greater access to justice

Innovators around the country are using technology to make the legal system more manageable, approachable and just.

Lady Justice. (Photo by Flickr user Rae Allen, used under a Creative Commons license)

For many, the law and its institutions are unapproachable, unaffordable and impenetrable. We’d much rather avoid the law than ever risk engaging with it. However, around the country, lawyers, advocates and technologists are changing the way that we (and they) interact with the legal system.

We’re not just talking about e-filing either. Code is being harnessed to provide better oversight of the Supreme Court and improve the efficiency of lawyers providing legal services to indigent clients. The law is vast and its adoption of technology is slow, but the types of projects cropping up are as varied as they are innovative.

To get a snapshot of this evolution, we took a look at seven legal technology and data innovations. Some of these projects emerged from the Without Their Permission ethos, while others are created because lawyers are growing tired of the redundancy of their work. Either way, these projects are in many cases foregoing precedent to see what happens when you tackle the law with technology.

1. Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, Philadelphia

Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE) is an alternative legal aid organization. Through legal representation, art and advocacy, PLSE helps low-income individuals overcome their contact with the Pennsylvania criminal justice system. Much of the time, this means helping file for expungement, which the group does en masse thanks to its expungement generator app.

Expungement is the legal process to erase an otherwise public criminal record. The volunteer attorneys at PLSE used to spend around three hours and reams of paper to file a single expungement. Now, says PLSE Executive Director Mike Lee, “It takes us an hour or so and we only use two pieces of paper.”

The expungement generator was built by PLSE cofounder Michael Hollander, now a staff attorney at Community Legal Services. Hollander was bored by the redundancy of the expungement process. By streamlining the process, the generator allows an attorney to drag and drop a client’s criminal record into the program and the generator then spits out an editable text file that can be edited and e-filed with the court.

Since the creation of the generator in 2011, PLSE has filed an impressive 4,000 expungement petitions.

2. SCOTUS Servo, Washington, D.C.

The Supreme Court of the United States is under constant Twitter watch. SCOTUS Servo came to be after David Zvenyach, then the general counsel of the Council of the District of Columbia, read how the New York Times was denied access to case edits made by the Supreme Court.

It is common practice that the Court goes back to its issued opinions and edits them, but the Court was unwilling to share which opinion was being edited or how. SCOTUS Servo is, in its basic sense, a web scraper, repository and Twitter bot rolled into one open government tool.

For now, SCOTUS Servo updates as the Court goes about its work. In the future, Zvenyach would like to see the project evolve and include differences between slip opinions, the second edition of an opinion and the bound editions that are printed about a year later.

3. Parole Board Data Project, New York

In New York, 10,000 people are denied parole every year. “There’s a human tragedy to this,” said Nikki Zeichner, the founder of the New York Parole Hearing Data Project.

As an attorney, she represented a man at his tenth parole board hearing. For reasons that did not make sense to her, that man was denied release. Confounded by this experience, Zeichner sought to understand how parole determinations are made. She says that currently the Parole Board is not considering how a person has evolved since their imprisonment.

During her research she found a public repository of parole hearing documents. Zeichner developed a scraper with Luke Dubois and Annie Waldman to collect relevant data. Now civic technologists Rebecca Ackerman and John Krauss have joined the project to increase its usability and identify ways to standardize parole hearing data collection.

So far the project has collected over 30,000 records. Zeichner points out, however, that the format of the documents has been a challenge. The records primarily capture demographic information and the crime itself. By collecting this data for public consumption, Zeichner believes they can make informed suggestions to better standardize and collect data in the future. Even with this data-focused approach, Zeichner has not lost sight of the human impact of this project. Ultimately, she says, “We want to help people understand the distinction between past and present.”

4. eRegulations, Washington, D.C.

Federal regulations are not easy to read, research or understand. Even the federal government knows this, so the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created eRegulations. A public domain project, eRegulations wants to make federal regs easy to understand and navigate.

The project is a beautiful combination of cross-referencing, official annotation and defined terms. It even includes a “date picker” timeline to show when and why the regulations were changed. That being said, the team building eRegulations is quick to point out that it is an editorial compilation, and not an official legal edition of the federal regs. Translated, this means that the tool will make your research easier, but, like so much legal tech, it does not substitute for a real attorney.

5. SCOTUS Mapper, Baltimore

University of Baltimore School of Law Professor Colin Starger wants to change the way we see the law. His project, SCOTUS Mapper, helps visualize Supreme Court precedent. Based on the citations in a given case, it creates networks to help users automatically understand the connectivity around a particular legal issue. The end result is an easy-to-read visualization of up to six degrees of precedent separation.

While the Mapper will look at any area of law, Starger has started a specific project called “Hacking the 8th Amendment.” For those not up on the Bill of Rights, the 8th Amendment is the one that protects you from “cruel and unusual punishment.” Recently, the 8th has been used to limit prison overcrowding in California and end mandatory life without parole sentences for juveniles.

“There’s a role for lawyers challenging various aspects of mass incarceration, and one way to do that is to use the 8th Amendment [in court],” said Starger. He believes mapping 8th Amendment doctrine will allow litigators to pick out particular language to advance novel arguments. Ultimately, Starger thinks SCOTUS Mapper can be one tool that helps end mass incarceration in the United States. “Let’s give the 8th amendment more teeth,” he said.

6. Legal Proof, Santa Clara, Calif.

Legal Proof assumes you do not know how to collect admissible evidence. For many of us, they are right.

Winning the 2015 American Bar Association’s Hackcess to Justice Hackathon in New Orleans, Legal Proof makes it easy to collect evidence for a variety of civil legal matters. The app, developed over the two-day hackathon, will help those who need to collect evidence for a pending legal action regarding divorce, landlord-tenant and workplace issues, amongst others.

Built with iOS, Legal Proof is the creation of Omega Ortega LLC. Users can choose a proof category, type and capture details like timestamp and location for use later. All of the evidence is locally stored, but the app will generate an email to send to opposing counsel or the court. Tom Ortega II, one of the creators, told the ABA Journal that this project would be uniquely valuable to those who cannot afford legal representation. “Much civil litigation could be avoided by simply keeping some basic evidence, hence Legal Proof was born,” he said.

7. Opening Criminal Justice Data, Washington, D.C.

The Sunlight Foundation is tackling criminal justice data. “Criminal justice data is generally unapproachable, which creates transparency issues,” said Ryan Sibley, the project’s lead. By collecting data in all 50 states, D.C. and on the federal level, Sunlight intends to have a better understanding of what criminal justice data is available and how it can be better standardized across jurisdictions.

With already 26 states online, Sunlight is collecting state, municipal and city data. This project, however, is not a guarantee of standardized or even useful data. Sibley says their experience so far has been varied. “Some states release more data than others,” she said. “Chicago put out a lot of data, but the value is debatable.”

While Sunlight cannot control the data released by local governments, it is in the process of building a search tool to help people navigate the data set in question. The final product is expected in 2016.

While Sunlight has not dug deep into this data yet, Sibley says there has already been one big takeaway. “What’s interesting isn’t what we’ve found, it’s what we haven’t found,” she said. “The [criminal justice] system is so unconnected, and that’s detrimental to the system on the whole. No one knows what anyone else is doing.”

Companies: University of Baltimore / Sunlight Foundation

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