A Manifesto on Expanding Access to Justice
February 12, 2020 by
A few weeks ago, we had the privilege of attending the Legal Services Corporation (LSC)’s Innovations in Technology conference in Portland, Oregon. It was an inspiring gathering of individuals on the forefront of utilizing technology to help expand access to justice (A2J), packed with sessions on topics ranging from online dispute resolution to artificial intelligence to litigant portals.
A Moral Imperative for Action
But in a conference filled with compelling presentations, one presentation stood out: the keynote by Jim Sandman, LSC’s president for the last nine years. We didn’t know it at the time of his keynote, but Jim will step down from this role on February 19. He has had a legendary career championing innovation in the delivery of legal services and the use of technology to enhance access to justice. Perhaps because he knew his term was coming to an end, Jim felt the urgency to speak frankly and from the heart about the failure of the current system and the moral imperative for action.
Jim contextualized his remarks by looking to history. He noted that Alexander Hamilton described justice as the first duty of society, and he quoted former Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who in 1964 said, “Lawyers have been paid, and paid well, to proliferate subtleties and complexities. It is about time we brought our intellectual resources to bear on eliminating some of those intricacies.”
The Way Forward
Jim observed that the challenges raised by these great thinkers have not been resolved; in fact, the problem is likely worse now than it has ever been. In response, he laid out a five-step plan to leverage technology to expand access to justice.
- Build a global strategic blueprint. This will enable disparate technology projects that expand access to justice to come together into a meta-collaboration. To do this, a global clearinghouse of information on A2J initiatives is needed, including projects underway in both for profit and nonprofit sectors. This comprehensive catalog will map and evaluate all current initiatives to help us document lessons learned while avoiding reinventing the wheel time and again. We must break out of silos and embrace dispersed development models. A host or consortium should be thoughtfully planned to command the credibility and secure the finances required to succeed.
- Recognize the limitations of technology. We need a clear-eyed recognition of the limitations of technology because, despite our best intentions, technology alone may not be able to help the most in need. Technological innovation must evolve hand in hand with legal process reform to expand access to the underserved. Current legal processes are far too complex — if we were to create a user manual for the justice system, it would have at least 2000 pages (and that’s leaving a lot of details out). Much like the Civil Resolution Tribunal in British Columbia, we must rethink everything we do in the justice system online and offline, with an eye to making the law less complex and more workable.
- Collaborate broadly. It is essential to collaborate beyond the traditional access to justice community. We need to engage social service agencies and nonprofits to make sure we see the challenges from all perspectives. The idea of “innovation initiatives led by lawyers” is an oxymoron. Most lawyers and judges are too wedded to precedent to drive change at scale.
- Think creatively on funding. This effort requires funding. Traditionally there has been little cross-pollination between the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, but we are working on similar problems. Firms like DLA Piper have convened global summits focused on A2J, and they’ve offered their technology to the A2J community. We need to keep our eyes open for collaboration opportunities.
- Identify leaders. We need leaders in A2J to build the blueprint, set priorities and build consensus, simplify processes, and secure funding. All of this will require leadership at a grand level, continuing over decades. We need to systematically identify people with the power to make change and inclination to lead. People like Deno Himonas in Utah, who is leading regulatory reform. We need to find more people like him. We should conscript our peers and expand the movement.
His voice cracking with emotion, Jim noted, “the system is failing. Failing. We just need to acknowledge that.” He urged the audience to recognize the urgency of the crisis and explained that we have to drive change at the scale of the crisis in front of us.
“My experience at LSC has radicalized me,” Jim concluded. “We cannot let the size of the problem anesthetize us. We cannot tolerate the continued degradation of justice to the detriment of the disadvantaged… The people in this room have the greatest promise to drive change. Let's set the world on fire.”
Jim Sandman has led this fight for the last decade, and his fingerprints are all over many important breakthroughs. Now the baton is being handed to the rest of us to keep fighting the good fight and to keep pushing forward. We thank Jim for his vision, his hard work, and his example. As we work every day to expand access to justice, we will be continually inspired by his passion and honesty.
Vice President, Online Dispute Resolution
Senior Executive Advisor