Leveraging Technology For Justice

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In civil legal matters, Minnesotans do not have a constitutional right to a lawyer. When conflict arises around civil matters such as housing, custody and child support, debt, or access to health benefits, parties must find an attorney or represent themselves.

Finding an attorney isn’t hard if you can pay for one. Minnesota has an attorney available for every 363 paying clients. There is, however, only one legal aid attorney for every 3,437 people with an income low enough to qualify, putting those with fewer financial resources at a serious legal disadvantage.

Legal Services State Support seeks to even that playing field with technology solutions that are approachable, sustainable and legally sound. Established in 1981 by the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition and housed within Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid, State Support increases statewide public access to legal resources through leveraged, coordinated service innovations like interactive document assembly tools and statewide online intake.

Tamara works full-time at minimum wage and receives child support. Her income is too high for Legal Aid and too low to afford a private attorney. When she learned that her ex-husband had received a promotion and raise, she figured that should mean a change in child support, but had no idea how to start the process.

Tamara called Legal Aid and was referred to LawHelpMN.org, State Support’s award-winning selfhelp website. LawHelpMN.org is Minnesota’s premier website for civil legal information and referrals, featuring 150 English language fact sheets and a growing collection in other languages. The mobile-optimized site includes a calendar of walk-in legal clinics, LiveHelp chat assistants and fully translated “mirror sites” in Somali, Hmong and Spanish. In 2015, LawHelpMN.org received almost 500,000 unique visits.

On the site, Tamara read a simply-worded legal fact sheet about changing a child support order. Next, she found the Minnesota Motion to Modify Child Support interactive interview, which guided her through the process of filling out the necessary court forms. An hour later, the automated interview compiled her answers. She printed out the completed forms to file with the court.

The Motion to Modify Child Support that Tamara used is one of the more than 20 online interviews developed by State Support since 2003. The interviews and other tools on LawHelpMN.org empower those facing the court system without an attorney and ease a court system overburdened with self-represented litigants. State Support’s Criminal Expungement interactive interview received national recognition in 2011 with an Innovation Award from Law Technology News.

State Support also administers Minnesota Legal Advice Online at MNLegalAdvice.org, a legal help site where volunteer attorneys provide brief legal advice in response to questions emailed from income-eligible clients. A third State Support site, ProJusticeMN.org is a full-service pro bono resource for legal professionals with a CLE calendar, practice library and guide to volunteer opportunities.

Self-help and pro bono tools cannot replace the benefit of direct representation by an experienced attorney, but in the face of a widening justice gap they often provide the only assistance and hope available. State Support strives to leverage technology, thereby strengthening the entire legal justice community.

Pat Schmartz

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