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Access to Justice Made Easy (Well, Easier)

The newly revamped LawHelpMN can’t singlehandedly solve the justice gap—but it gives Minnesota lawyers a great way to refer people they couldn’t otherwise assist to the legal help they need. 

By Bridget Gernander


0819-Helping-HandsJustice for all is one of the fundamental promises of our democracy—important enough to be the closing words we recite in the 

Pledge of Allegiance. As a profession, lawyers struggle to reconcile the principle of justice for all with the reality of 25 years of research showing that only a small fraction of the civil legal needs of low-income people across the country are being met.1 Despite a strong civil legal aid system that works to provide high quality services in every county in the state, programs in Minnesota turn away 60 percent of eligible clients who request help due to limited staff and volunteer resources.2

It was also 25 years ago that the Minnesota Judicial Branch first included the need for services to self-represented litigants in its strategic planning process.3 Since that time, the Minnesota Judicial Branch has been a leader in court forms and informational services for people navigating the system without the assistance of an attorney. But in many ways these court resources were considered separate from the access to justice work being done through civil legal aid and the private bar. This often results in confusion about how and where to refer a low- or middle-income client for legal assistance. The Judicial Branch website includes a wide range of resources, as do the websites of law libraries and civil legal aid, but up to now there has been no overarching structure bringing all the services together. 

Introducing the new LawHelpMN

Rather than putting the burden on the person facing the legal problem to navigate multiple websites and phone numbers, we knew we needed to put the burden on the system to get the user to the right place. To do this, the Minnesota access to justice community has taken a trusted civil legal aid website and expanded its scope. The LawHelpMN.org website has been in place for over a decade with more than 1,000 people per day accessing the site’s content. The website is maintained by Legal Services State Support, whose staff has worked to upgrade its infrastructure to provide users with the best available assistance regardless of income or civil case type. 

The result is an innovative navigational assistance tool: the LawHelpMN Guide.
(www.lawhelpmn.org/lawhelpmn-guide). Designed to deliver a customized set of self-help resources and referrals tailored to each individual’s specific legal issue, the LawHelpMN Guide generates curated results in response to a series of simple questions. These “guided” questions are intended to narrow a person’s legal topic—and, if needed, gauge their potential eligibility for services based on a variety of factors, including location and income. The LawHelpMN Guide is intuitive and easy to use by either the person seeking information or an attorney, advocate, or anyone assisting them. On the basis of each answer, the user is presented with another small group of questions or statements that further refine the original, more general question. With each succeeding selection, the query is filtered until the resulting list of resources and referrals is the best possible match for the person and their legal concern. This branching logic takes the guesswork out of sifting through voluminous resources because the legal issue-spotting is built in. The questions are written in plain language style, so no legal knowledge is needed. 

As we worked through the Justice for All research described below, the largest documented gap in services was for modest-income people just over civil legal aid income guidelines. In response, LawHelpMN now includes a new referral service created by the Minnesota State Bar Association, Hennepin County Bar Association, and Ramsey County Bar Association: the Minnesota Unbundled Law Project (mnunbundled.org).4 This new online service directs people to lower-cost, limited-scope options for legal assistance. Bar association staff developed the site with input from practitioner members, created participation requirements, and designed a training program. Another expanded referral source is through a partnership with Community Mediation Minnesota (communitymediationmn.org), which provides free or low-cost community mediation services statewide. Users of the LawHelp MN Guide can choose community mediation services if it is a good fit for their situation.

By bringing together civil legal aid resources, court forms, law library research services, community mediation, and private bar referral services, the rebuilt site is a one-stop referral source for the legal community. The LawHelpMN Guide also provides a streamlined referral mechanism for our community partners, who can be confused on how to direct people facing a legal crisis. Legal Services State Support has conducted user testing with public libraries, social services programs, and faith community leaders, receiving very positive feedback about their comfort level in providing referrals to LawHelpMN.org.5

Background: A new direction for access to justice

The path to the new LawHelpMN started in 2015, when the national Conference of Chief Justices passed a resolution that was quite revolutionary for the access to justice field. Recognizing significant advances toward creating a “continuum of meaningful and appropriate services to secure effective assistance for essential civil legal needs” by courts, civil legal aid, and bar associations, they resolved that “the Conference of Chief Justices and the Conference of State Court Administrators support the aspirational goal of 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs and urge their members to provide leadership in achieving that goal.”6 This is often called the “100 percent access resolution.” Why should this aspirational goal be considered revolutionary?

Focusing on the “continuum of services” means that we intentionally move away from measuring access to justice with a single yardstick: whether everyone has direct representation through a lawyer. The 100-percent-access resolution recognizes that there are many ways people can get “effective assistance for essential civil legal needs.” There are some people for whom access to plain language legal fact sheets can answer a question and prevent a problem from getting worse. Others are able to use guided interviews to complete legal forms, especially when coupled with self-help services from court staff. And there are still many people who need full access to an attorney due to the complicated nature of their claim or the language and literacy barriers they face. This focus on “effective assistance” rather than direct representation alone moves away from a one-size-fits all approach. 

Another revolutionary feature of the resolution is that it includes services for people across all income spectrums. Civil legal aid programs will rightly continue to focus on the lowest-income Minnesotans,7 but the 100-percent-access resolution applies to everyone. This means bar association lawyer referral services and other market-based approaches for people who can pay some amount for legal services are critical components of a healthy access to justice ecosystem. By putting all of civil legal services together, one quality referral can be made without extensive information about income or assets.

The Conference of Chief Justices directed the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) to provide assistance toward “achieving the goal of 100 percent access through a continuum of meaningful and appropriate services.”
With startup funds from several private foundations, NCSC created the Justice for All project.8 The Justice for All project recognizes that no single program or approach can suffice to provide appropriate and meaningful assistance to everyone who needs civil legal help. The project works to encourage state efforts that include all relevant stakeholders in the civil justice community—courts, legal aid, the private bar—in a partnership to implement the 100-percent-access resolution. As a starting point for the project, NCSC provided grant funds for statewide assessment and implementation. Twenty-seven states applied for funding, and Minnesota was one of seven to receive a grant award.

Minnesota used its Justice for All grant funds to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the current civil justice system, draft a Strategic Plan,9 and support the creation of resources and referrals through the new LawHelpMN Guide. More information about the Minnesota Justice for All assessment and all ongoing projects across the access to justice spectrum can be found at www.mncourts.gov/justice-for-all-project.

The work is never “finished”

The LawHelpMN Guide is designed to be iterative—a word familiar to anyone working on technology projects, but one that was new to me. Iterative, in this context, means that the website will incorporate its learnings and data to create a feedback loop. Future iterations of LawHelpMN.org will deploy new technologies, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence, to help ensure ongoing enhancements to the content and user experience.

Working on access to justice requires a long view of how systems can be changed to better serve the public. For many years it seemed that the work was done in silos, and as a result successful efforts by one stakeholder were not easy to share with others.
The LawHelpMN Guide is the culmination of true collaboration between the courts, civil legal aid, and the private bar. This collaboration reduces duplication, confusion, and frustration for people facing legal issues. With this strong and flexible tool, Minnesota has moved much closer to providing justice for all. 

The new LawHelpMN at a glance

LawHelpMN.org should be the referral you give anyone who contacts your office with a civil legal issue for which you aren’t able to provide representation. It covers every Minnesota county and every income level. The LawHelpMN Guide can direct users to fact sheets, forms, help with legal research, and screening for a wide range of services for which they may be eligible:

  • Civil legal aid 
  • Community dispute resolution
  • Bar association services:   
    • Unbundled roster
    • Attorney referral programs

As services grow and change over time, the LawHelpMN Guide is updated regularly. This is the “no wrong door” resource for civil legal issues statewide.




Notes

1 The seminal civil legal needs assessment was released by the American Bar Association in 1994. See Legal Needs and Civil Justice: A Survey of Americans, Major Findings from the Comprehensive Civil Legal Needs Study at https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/administrative/legal_aid_indigent_defendants/downloads/legalneedstudy.pdf. Additional civil legal needs studies from around the country are summarized in the 2017 report from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) entitled The Justice Gap: Measuring the Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans at https://www.lsc.gov/media-center/publications/2017-justice-gap-report.

2 Study of turndown data collected from Minnesota Legal Services Coalition Programs in 2016. To give you a sense of the scope of the challenge in our state, a recent analysis of Minnesota Attorney Registration System (MARS) data shows we have one private lawyer for every 324 potential paying clients compared with one civil legal aid lawyer for every 6,058 clients potentially income-eligible for services.

3 Hon. John Stanoch, Working with Pro Se Litigants: The Minnesota Experience, 24 Wm. Mitch. Law Review 297 (1998).

4 Preliminary data shows a 40 percent increase in people accessing www.mnunbundled.org since the LawHelpMN Guide was launched. This is an encouraging metric for the importance of bringing civil legal aid and private attorney services in to the same referral tool.

5 http://www.mncourts.gov/mncourtsgov/media/scao_library/documents/JFA_Trusted_Intermediary_Minnesota_Report_FINAL_23MARCH2019.pdf

6 https://ccj.ncsc.org/~/media/Microsites/Files/CCJ/Resolutions/07252015-Reaffirming-Commitment-Meaningful-Access-to-Justice-for-All.ashx

7 Most civil legal aid programs limit full representation services to clients at 125 percent of the poverty level or below, with some advice or brief services up to 200 percent of poverty. A limited number of programs will provide advice up to 300 percent of poverty in some case types. The range of income eligibility is another reason why having the centralized resource of www.lawhelpmn.org is so important. You can refer to that resource without having to do an income screening.

8 www.ncsc.org/jfap 

9 http://www.mncourts.gov/mncourtsgov/media/scao_library/documents/JFA-Strategic-Plan-FINAL.pdf