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Can Technology Make the Civil Court System More Accessible?

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Can Technology Make the Civil Court System More Accessible?

"Pew Charitable Trust wants to make the non-criminal legal system easier to navigate without lawyers, and technology is a key component to their plans.

Modernizing civil courts at the state and local level has become increasingly important in a world where residents can handle their business online whether it's to order takeout or pay property taxes. Yet the courts remain a relatively offline system that in large part demand physical attendance for sometimes procedural tasks.

Even more troubling is that an increasing number of people are navigating civil court cases, such as small claims or family issues, without a lawyer, according to Erika Rickard, who was formerly with Harvard’s Access to Justice Lab and is now a senior officer in the Civil Legal System Modernization at Pew.

Unlike in criminal court, people involved in civil court — whether it's for debt collection, landlord disputes, custody cases or other legal issues — don’t have a right to a lawyer to represent them. If they can’t afford a lawyer, they must still attend and represent themselves. Pew’s research has found that as recently as 1992, as few as 5 percent of people in general civil court cases did not have a lawyer. Today, however, that number has risen ninefold, and 45 percent of cases in general jurisdictions have at least one side without a lawyer. When small claims and other cases are included, that number rises to 75 percent.

“In three out of four cases today, at least one side doesn’t have a lawyer,” Rickard said. “That’s more than 30 million people every year who are navigating state and local court systems without a lawyer. The key here is that a typical court user has really changed, has changed dramatically, but courts have not really changed along with that new reality.”

The new reality involves a sizable increase in low cost cases, at least from the court’s perspective. Cases for debt collection of less than $5,200 take place much more frequently than they did decades ago. These are cases that from the court’s perspective may seem less consequential, but they often have the potential to have cascading consequences throughout people’s lives, said Rickard..."

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