Pro Bono News

Techno-Optimism & Access to the Legal System

Friday, January 25, 2019

Techno-Optimism & Access to the Legal System

"Imagine a world where a man convicted of a crime can use an app to legally expunge his record so he can get a job. Or where a cleaning lady paid by the hour can use an app to figure out whether her employer is stealing her wages. Or where a tenant can use an app to document the mold growing in her bathroom and get her landlord to follow the law and eliminate the mold.

For legal technologists, apps like these raise the prospect of putting the law in the hands of disadvantaged people who feel powerless to deal with their legal problems. Self-help apps aim to enable users to address their legal issues themselves, educate them about the legal system, and motivate them to pursue their rights and seek positive political change.

To their creators, self-help tools represent an important step toward fulfilling the democratic promise that law be accessible to everyone and redressing power imbalances in the legal system that stem from economic and other forms of inequality. In this techno-optimistic vision, self-help technologies will loosen the control of lawyers over the legal system and lead to a broader collective capacity to address the system’s failings and the conditions of poverty more generally.

These aspirations are attractive, but they rest on unrealistic assumptions about how people living in poverty actually deal with legal problems. In particular, they overlook the cultural, material, and educational hurdles this group confronts when attempting to find legal help. People who are poor rarely resort to the law to solve their problems. In 2017, the Legal Services Corporation found that the large majority of people who face legal problems don’t seek legal assistance or even information. Many people don’t look for help because they believe they can handle their problems on their own. Some African Americans, a separate study concluded, are deeply distrustful of the civil legal system because of their experiences with the criminal justice system..."

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