Legal aid in the United States is broken. Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the country's primary funder of legal aid organizations, estimates that about half of eligible clients are turned away from the organizations it funds, and about eighty percent of the civil legal needs of low-income Americans remain unmet.
The problem starts from minute one, when a new client, unfamiliar with the legal process or the legal aid system, struggles to determine what to do next, who to turn to for help, or even what questions to ask to find help. The day-zero chaos a person faces before finding the right individual, department, or organization to provide help, and the time spent redirecting clients who have guessed wrong, adds up to a daunting burden for everyone in the system.
Technology can help solve this problem. To that end, LSC has recently deployed a “Find Legal Aid” page on their website, allowing anyone with an Internet connection to look up the nearest LSC-funded legal aid office to their address or zip code.
It isn't enough. In order to be eligible for legal aid with an LSC-funded organization, a client's household income cannot exceed 125% of the poverty line, which for a family of four is just a shade under $30k/year. The rate of internet users in that income bracket is about sixty percent. That means that even if LSC did the very best job possible with outreach, publicity, and web design (no mean feats, mind), the best they could do is reach sixty percent of the people they are trying to help.
We can do more. Successful engagement with marginalized populations must come at every level of connectivity. Here, the missing link is SMS, which some 95% of people in the US have access to. Nonetheless, there remains skepticism on just how effective SMS can be, particularly in seemingly high-connectivity countries like the United States, where the unconnected are invisible to a majority that increasingly relies on technology to find and help others. Technology is more than a tool: it’s a habit, and expecting a person facing the chaos of a legal emergency to suddenly acquire a lifetime of Internet-savvy—and spend time at a library or workplace to do it—is unrealistic and unfair. To reach the unconnected, we need to find ways to provide information and services they need directly to their home, with the technology they already have. SMS can help solve this problem.
We wanted to prove how easy it is to set up a legal aid lookup tool using SMS. So we did it. We used the data from LSC's online legal aid lookup tool as a base, cleaned it up (there were some zip codes that pointed to the wrong place), and put that data into our own systems to create this demo (which is up for a limited time, and for US numbers only). To see it in action, text your zip code to 224-310-9108. You'll get back the name, phone number, and website of your local LSC-funded legal aid office.
We can do even more. Using this system as a base, we can prompt clients to answer simple intake questions to direct them to the right department or person, or prompt them to book an appointment over SMS. Then, when the client arrives, their intake data will be ready and waiting. With the participation of independent, specialized legal aid organizations, we can expand the usefulness of the network even further, reaching low income people who aren't eligible for LSC aid, or who need more specialized help, such as with immigration.
When someone realizes they need legal help, it's almost always a pseudo-emergency, or it very much feels like one. Then, to make matters worse, one has to run a labyrinthine legal system, blindfolded. We can do better. SMS can be a key part of a multiplatform approach to inexpensively make finding legal help just a bit less painful, for client and provider alike. We’re looking for legal service providers and networks to run pilots in the United States (and elsewhere). Want to take part? Get in touch, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Bill Mill, "You Know My Name, Look Up The Number". 2009. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 License. Original at https://www.flickr.com/photos/llimllib/3226097879.