It's not nearly the exhausting process it once was, and people can direct more focus and attention to the legal issues. They don't have to worry anymore about the administrative side of things, writing the same information over and over again or making sure everything is in the right place and filled out correctly. The system now takes care of all of that.
Pro Bono Net is a nonprofit focused on helping increase access to justice for low-income and other vulnerable populations. It works closely with nonprofit legal services organizations around the country to expand availability of free, high-quality legal services to the poor. Pro Bono Net provides resources, referrals, self-help tools, and other guidance to the public through its LawHelp.org site, and helps connect pro bono attorneys with volunteer opportunities, training and practice resources via its Probono.net site. Its LawHelp Interactive service assists clients in filling out court forms and creating legal documents, either on their own or in self-help clinics staffed by volunteer or legal aid attorneys.
LawHelp Interactive is a key part of Pro Bono Net's model of using technology to increase access to justice. Prior to its launch in 2005, most documents were created by hand on paper. Many of the forms were quite lengthy and information entry was tedious, so filling them out manually involved hours of work. Other documents were being crafted with crude cut-and-paste methods which often produced inaccuracies and errors. "Staff observed that many clients would grow weary of this process and would then have a hard time focusing on their substantive legal issues and the sometimes tough decisions needed to resolve them," says Pro Bono Net's Kate Bladow. "It became clear that we needed a better methodology, something that could speed up the process and make use of current technology to provide a more comfortable experience for already-harried users." After researching and evaluating the available options, the legal aid and pro bono community selected HotDocs as the basis of the new system.
Originally called National Public Automated Documents Online (NPADO), the new application, which was launched in 2005, moved the document production process to the web with HotDocs Server as the assembly engine. A custom-developed, web-based front end allowed users to create accounts, log in, and navigate through the site. In addition, the Center for Access to Justice & Technology at the Chicago-Kent College of Law developed a Flash-based user interface that integrates with HotDocs to assist self-represented litigants who are less tech-savvy. Attorneys and their staff create interviews and automate templates that produce documents pertaining to dozens of different legal scenarios, including divorce, child support, protection orders, landlord/tenant issues, and estate planning. Participating states link to the templates posted on the system from their respective websites, which can be found at LawHelp.org or probono.net.
Since its inception, the application has gone through some refinement and enhancement - including a site redesign and concurrent name change to LawHelp Interactive - and usage has increased significantly year after year. In 2009, for example, over 147,000 forms and documents were assembled - a 32% increase from 2008. Cumulatively, users have worked through more than 700,000 interviews and more than 400,000 documents have been assembled. Attorneys, law students, and other legal professionals continue to add interviews and templates to the system, increasing the variety and quality of the content available. More than 350 templates are available for attorneys and 330 are available for self-represented litigants. LawHelp Interactive is now available for use in 30 states with another six states actively developing their first content, and that number is expected to climb over the next few years.
Perhaps most importantly, the system has made it much easier for users to address their legal problems. They can access resources and produce documents much more quickly than they could otherwise. The self-help clinics using LawHelp Interactive, for example, report time savings of up to 50%. "It's not nearly the exhausting process it once was, and people can direct more focus and attention to the legal issues. They don't have to worry anymore about the administrative side of things, writing the same information over and over again or making sure everything is in the right place and filled out correctly. The system now takes care of all of that," notes Bladow. "It's made a big difference."