Imagine you have a civil legal matter. It could be a divorce, an issue with child support, debts, identity theft, a small claims dispute, a problem with a landlord. What do you do? If you have the resources, the first step is obvious: Hire a lawyer.
But what if you can’t afford an attorney? That could mean you’re stuck trying to navigate the legal system on your own, a process likely to prove impossibly confusing for most non-lawyers, and one in which a simple mistake could lead to adverse consequences. The result often amounts to a troubling split: a justice system for those who can afford an attorney and one for those who can’t.
Trying to figure out how to provide access to justice and legal services for low-income Arkansans has been a focus for Arkansas Legal Services Partnership Director Vincent Morris for the last 10 years. Morris was recently honored with the 2014 Innovations in Equal Justice Award by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association for his role in developing technological solutions to provide legal resources to poor Arkansans.
In a criminal matter, defendants are legally entitled to a public defender if they can’t afford an attorney. No such guarantee exists for low-income people in civil matters, including potentially life-altering problems, such as legal issues related to domestic violence, child custody, or housing foreclosures. In civil matters, two legal aid organizations, which combined cover the entire state — the Center for Arkansas Legal Services and Legal Aid of Arkansas — provide legal services for Arkansans who make less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level (that’s around $15,000 for an individual or $30,000 for a family of four). These legal aid organizations serviced around 15,000 clients last year. But because of limited capacity, they had to turn away another 15,000 people. These were people who qualified by income and had a legal problem, but legal aid simply didn’t have the resources to help them. On top of that are thousands more of the working poor who fall in what legal access advocates call the “justice gap” — people who make a little too much to qualify for legal aid but not enough to realistically afford to hire an attorney.
“About half of all Arkansans make less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level,” said Amy Johnson, executive director of Arkansas Access to Justice. “They would have to choose between paying for an attorney and paying for basic necessities.”
Morris began as an eight-week intern at the Center for Arkansas Legal Services in 2003, while he was still a law student at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s Bowen School of Law. A former carpenter, Morris taught himself computer programming. “I came from a builder perspective,” he said. “I thought, I could build a house, I can build anything — I can teach myself programming.” He got a grant to develop technological solutions to legal access issues and began the work of revamping of the state website for legal aid services. At the time, the site amounted to little more than a business card. Morris built it into a hub of legal resources — for pro bono attorneys, legal aid attorneys and for the general public. Morris convinced court clerks and judges to refer people who were looking for basic legal resources, and used search-engine optimization techniques to make sure that folks looking for legal information in Arkansas on Google found it. The site, which can be found at arlegalservices.org, now gets almost one million page views per year.
“The first thing we had to do was get a really good, viable, highly trafficked website up,” Morris said. “It’s all about content — providing legal information, as well as actual legal resources, to folks for free.”
Morris writes all of the content at a fifth-to-eighth-grade reading level, no easy task when it comes to complicated legal jargon. “It’s pretty challenging,” Morris said. “Lawyers use a lot of Latin. Like most people don’t know what pro se [representing oneself in a legal matter] means.”
One of Morris’ most successful projects has been the development of an “automated documents” program, which generates packets of needed forms for particular legal situations. The program walks users through a series of questions in the style of a program like TurboTax. There’s even a cartoon of a person walking down a path, step by step, until reaching the courthouse. At the end of the process, the user gets all of the forms he needs, in order, along with instructions about exactly what to do — where to take them, how many copies he needs, and so forth.
“You get the whole thing that you would need for a simple legal action — something that’s simple to an attorney, but to someone trying to figure it out, it’s not simple at all,” Morris said.
Morris also does work with pro bono and legal aid attorneys, but this particular program is geared toward people who for whatever reason have to represent themselves — because they can’t afford an attorney, or even because they’re in an emergency situation and don’t have immediate access to legal help, such as domestic violence victims who need to get an order of protection. The program doesn’t offer legal advice, and only covers relatively simple matters. Morris is forthright that it’s no substitute for a lawyer and isn’t ideal for every scenario. It amounts to triage: helping make the legal system more navigable for those who have no option but pro se.
“It would be great to have an attorney for everyone,” Morris said. “But there were more than 15,000 that legal aid [organizations] had to turn away. The hardest part in legal aid is saying no. These are people who we either can’t help because of capacity or it’s outside our case priority. For instance, we don’t do divorces anymore unless there’s domestic violence. [The form packet program] is not the primary option. It’s designed for all the overflow. It just broke my heart that we had to say no to all these people who need help.”
Morris’ brand of triage is crucial in courtrooms that are seeing increases in clients representing themselves (in a recent survey by Arkansas Access to Justice, 83 percent of judges said they had seen such an increase, with 78 percent saying that pro se representation led to negative outcomes). Prior to the self-help form packets, many of these folks would show up to court empty handed or with forms incorrectly filled out or the wrong forms entirely (some had even paid for help from an online service like LegalZoom only to find out that it wasn’t applicable to Arkansas-specific law). This is the void that arlegalservices.org fills: helping people get the basics right.
The demand for the self-help form packets has been incredible. In 2012 there were 52,800 total family law filings in Arkansas; arlegalservices.org generated 12,400 form packets for users. That amounts to 23.5 percent of all the filings. Meanwhile, for the type of divorce supported by the program — no property and no supportive children — there were 15,500 filings statewide, and arlegalservices.org generated forms for 10,821 users, a whopping 70 percent. The caveat here is that not necessarily everyone who generated forms actually filed — the courts don’t track how many people used forms from arlegalservices.org. Still, the program has clearly provided resource help to a huge chunk of people in need of legal services. In the recent survey of circuit court judges by Arkansas Access to Justice, more than 70 percent said that pro se litigants had used the self-help resources and more than 60 percent said these resources had benefited their courtrooms.
Morris has received 17 grants in his time as director of the Arkansas Legal Services Partnership and director of the Arkansas Pro Bono Partnership. In addition to the self-help form packets program, Morris has spearheaded numerous other projects using technology to increase access to legal resources and information. He has partnered with libraries to help provide a means for low-income people without Internet access to use the arlegalservices.org site. Live chat is provided from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to help users navigate the resources on the site and find out what kinds of legal help might be available. LegalTube, a YouTube channel with more than 50,000 views so far, uses video to convey legal information. A new project, Court Help, grew out of Morris’ realization that in addition to forms and instructions, people needed basic information about the procedures of court. “There are two areas of law, substantive law and then procedural — all the little rules, like a basketball game,” Morris said. “When do you stand up, when do you sit down, when do you present?”
Johnson, of Arkansas Access for Justice, helps staff the live chats. “People get on it every single day, and say, ‘I don’t have anything,’ ” she said. ” ‘I have no money. My kids are being taken away from me, I have nowhere to turn.’ This is a place for people who have nowhere to turn to get some information, to get some help for something that they would otherwise be completely lost without.”
“The law can be creative, it can be innovative and it can be noble,” Morris said. “The oath of an Arkansas attorney, it’s on my wall, and I look at it once a week. There’s a paragraph that says, ‘I will not reject from any consideration to myself the cause of the impoverished, the defenseless, or the oppressed. I will endeavor always to advance the cause of justice.’ All these projects that we do, that’s my motivation.”