For years, turning to technology has been the greatest hope in narrowing the justice gap.
And yet, technology remains an unrealized dream because meager resources are spread thinly
throughout our fragmented legal system. The law is complicated and resources are limited.
Therefore, standardizing some elements within out current system would allow a small amount
of money to have a greater effect.
While standardizing a select few legal forms may not be the most exciting idea, it would
allow indigent populations greater access to the justice system. Start by selecting the three most
common legal issues with which low-income people need help then standardize those processes.
In turn, it would require fewer funds to teach people to advocate for themselves. We would
move into a world where investments are made regarding how to create effective self-advocates
in a single system instead of spending money and calories to teach people to navigate more than
Today, many organizations providing legal aid are overwhelmed to the point that they are
practicing a form of legal triage. For instance, a woman seeking an order of protection, but not in
immediate fear for her life, may be turned away. Instead, we could provide help through a
website designed to guide her through standardized documents to request a hearing on a
With standardized paperwork, enabling self-advocates becomes a reality. The website
could use comprehensive checklists and gamification to help users begin, finish, and process
their paperwork. Streaming videos would teach users how to dress for court and how to address
a judge. Users could chat with an actual attorney who would provide a final review and advice
before electronically submitting documents to the court.
Such a program couldn’t address every type of legal issue. However, addressing two or
three issues most common to indigent populations, such as protective and restraining orders or
landlord tenant disputes, would enable greater access to the justice system. It would free up
limited resources to work on more complex cases without neglecting the basic needs of the
Standardizing a few legal forms could be done through an interstate compact. This fairly
common method would allow the documents to be thoughtfully crafted prior to states entering
into an agreement. This was done in the Drivers License Compact where states decided to share
information regarding suspensions and traffic violations. This is currently being done with great
success in the National Popular Vote movement. Eliminating barriers for the needy, saving
localities the financial burden of pulling people from the cracks, and judicial economy are all
interests that states should find compelling when deciding to enter into the compact.
The first rule of social work is to never do for someone what they can do for themselves.
In the case at hand, there simply is no way attorneys can help everyone. Waves of attorneys
aren’t coming to offer pro bono services and for the foreseeable future, demand will continue to
outstrip funding, leaving many on the far side of the gap. Creating a climate where effective self-
representation is the norm should be a goal for every justice minded organization. The key to
closing the justice gap is to make it easier for people to advocate for themselves.