Current Projects

Law Kiosk in action

Back in 2004, the Legal Services Corporation sponsored a law kiosk for an “online legal service center” on Navajo territory in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.  Read an article from back when it was debuted.  It meant to deliver access to justice, specifically for consumer and tax law.

“DNA Peoples Legal Services installed computer kiosks throughout the 25,000 miles of Navajo and Hopi Nations located in Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico through a Technology Initiative Grant from Legal Services Corporation. These web-based kiosks connect to the Internet via satellite and DSL allowing users to access legal information through either spoken instructions delivered in English, Hopi or Navajo or written instructions in English. To further increase accessibility, DNA created custom graphic icons to help clients navigate the website. These touch-screen kiosks, installed in each of its nine offices located on or near Hopi and Navajo reservations, provide information through DNA’s internal web server on issues such as Consumer Law, Tax Law, Trash and Recycling, and information on free income-tax seminars. These kiosks allow DNA People’s Legal Services to better serve these Southwestern Native American communities, which spans across an immense geographical area. 

DNA Legal Services was supplied by a kiosk company, NBG SolutionsA 2002 article from Portland’s Business Journal gave more explanation to the project.

DNA is a nonprofit agency providing free civic legal services to low-income people in its service areas—which happen to cover Navajo and Hopi reservations.

DNA was awarded a technology grant by the Legal Service Corp. to find an innovative way to deliver legal services to clients spread over a vast area— more than 25,000 square miles—with a very small staff.

DNA’s task is challenging: to provide help with legal chores such as name changes, simple divorces and guardianships.

The help is sorely needed. Much of the population in DNA’s service area is under-educated, and poor enough to lack such basic amenities as a phone in the home, let alone a computer.

Language is also an issue for DNA’s clients. “Most of our clients don’t speak or read English,” said Chris O’Shea Heydinger, director of development and information technology for DNA.

“They certainly don’t read in their native languages,” an accomplishment that is limited only to university graduates who pursue the study of Native American languages as an academic subject. Neither Navajo nor Hopi was codified as a written language until the mid-20th century.

A technological solution of some sort was required, rather than simply offering stacks of self-help brochures at DNA offices, precisely because written materials would be no help at all to most clients.

DNA’s answer, built by NBG Solutions, is a kiosk equipped with a touch-screen web browser that can be navigated using custom-designed icons supplied by DNA—for example, a traditional hogan (Navajo house) denoting the home page, and an arrowhead denoting “back” or “forward.”

With the kiosks already delivered and waiting, DNA is in the last stages of designing its web site to deliver spoken information in Navajo or Hopi, depending on where the kiosk is located.

Clients will be able to navigate the graphics-intensive web site to the services they need, and will be able to listen to instructions in their native language, then print out forms as they need them.

The web site, “a labor of love,” according to Heydinger, will go live in April.

The kiosks will be connected to the internet via satellite, because the reservations are so far from the internet backbone.

Current Projects Ideabook

New Generation of Tech for Access to Justice

A great article from Slate on Tech being used for Legal Aid & Access to Justice, with lots of specific examples of how SMS and other basic tech can give reminders, process updates, basic advice, and more lawyering to people who can’t afford lawyers.
The concepts:
  • Automated Call Back Systems from legal services to people who have reached out
  • SMS reminders from courts to litigants about what expectations are
  • Using data for legal services to better track their work & targets
  • Virtual office kits to provide legal services on the go, or outside of legal offices
  • An app that gives checklists to lawyers to ensure they’re catching all the issues

“Don’t Forget Your Court Date”

How text messages and other technology can give legal support to the poor.


It has been three years since the Great Recession ended, but the nation’s courthouses are still swamped with eviction cases, foreclosures, and debt collection suits. If overdue bills and late rent were crimes, all low-income tenants and debtors could get a public defender for free. Because those cases are civil suits, though, the state doesn’t provide an attorney. Which means that in civil court, most people don’t have a lawyer in their corner—even though their homes and financial stability are on the line.

What many do have in their back pockets, however, is a smartphone. And soon, they might be able to find some legal help there, too.

Like everyone else, lawyers for the poor are trying to do more with less, as government grants and private funding have dried up. Increasingly, that means turning to tech, using new tools to deliver information to clients, support volunteer lawyers, and improve their own systems. They’re using text messaging, automated call-backs, Web chats, and computer-assisted mapping.

A crush of new clients is pushing the growing reliance on technology, as the old systems just can’t keep up. For years, people seeking help have called their local legal services offices, only to wait on hold for 20 minutes or more. If someone has a pay-by-the-minute cellphone, as many low-income people do, that gets expensive fast. Many callers just give up, says Elizabeth Frisch, the co-executive director of Legal Aid of Southeastern Pennsylvania. So Frisch and her team are piloting an automated call-back system, using voice over IP, to reduce hold time and save those precious minutes.

Text messages can also improve efficiency. If courts sent SMS reminders to litigants, that would help move along cases that get postponed over and over when one party doesn’t show up, says Glenn Rawdon. Rawdon runs the technology grants program at the Legal Services Corp., the federal program that funds legal aid groups. A text could also help people remember to bring documents to meetings with their overworked lawyers. “It’s very time-consuming if they come to the appointment and say, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot to bring the papers,’ ” Rawdon says. And SMS can be used to deliver basic legal information, like what to look for when signing a lease, or the laws surrounding a wage claim. Legal aid groups in Georgia, New York, Washington, Illinois, and Pennsylvania are all piloting text-based campaigns this year.

For simple questions, technology can help deliver information to clients. For more complicated problems, only a lawyer will do. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough lawyers to go around. That’s particularly true outside of cities.

For example, 70 percent of Georgia’s lawyers are in the Atlanta metro area, although just under 30 percent of the state’s population lives there, according to the State Bar of Georgia. Six counties have no lawyers at all.

“It’s really expensive to deliver legal services in a rural area. Lawyers have to travel,” says Michael Monahan of Georgia Legal Services. Some lawyers at his organization cover six or seven counties, he says, working in the field three or four days a week.

So five years ago, Georgia Legal Services created virtual office kits, with laptops, portable printers, and scanners. They also got an assist from Sprint, which provided free air cards for mobile Internet access and an “extremely low data rate” for unlimited usage.

In Ohio, which also has big rural areas and a shortage of lawyers to serve them, Web chat can help volunteers reach more clients.

The system “allows us to address an imbalance between where the attorneys are and where our clients are,” says Kevin Mulder, executive director of Legal Aid of Western Ohio.

But logistics aren’t the only hurdle for volunteers. They can be “a little uncomfortable taking cases that are outside their practice area,” says David Lund, who runs the Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota.

If you’re used to dealing with real estate contracts, for instance, a Medicaid case can be intimidating. So he’s developing a set of checklists for specific issues, optimized for tablets, that lawyers can use when they’re volunteering.

They’ll use it at the start of a case, as they’re laying out a client’s options, and at potential settlements, to make sure that they haven’t missed anything crucial. In eviction cases, for example, a landlord can get a judgment of possession. This allows the tenant to leave without paying back rent, but it’s still a judgment against him, which means it can jeopardize eligibility for future subsidized housing, like Section 8. An experienced landlord-tenant lawyer would know that. An occasional volunteer would not. Which is where the checklist comes in.

Some things are best left to full-time legal aid lawyers. But since there are so few, groups are using data analysis and mapping to better focus their scarce resources. Prairie State Legal Services in Rockford, Ill., is using its “incredible mass of data” to develop a mapping project, plotting addresses and legal needs. Director Michael O’Connor says this will help them answer questions like, “Are there clusters in certain communities where lots of people are facing issues with access to public benefits, or substandard housing?” Armed with that information, his staff can do targeted outreach campaigns or ramp up for litigation.

No one thinks technology is a cure-all. Even the best app or website can’t stand next to you in front of a judge, responding to the opposing counsel.

And despite these promising tools, unmet need is enormous. Many clients want more support than they can get from an app or a chat, but limited funds make that unlikely. “For a large percentage of those folks, [help via technology] will be it. That will be the most that we will be able to offer,” says Deb Jennings, who manages a phone helpline at Advocates for Basic Legal Equality in Toledo, Ohio. And the use of new tech tools is in the early stages—many projects are somewhere between concept and beta.

The tools that are in use show great promise. Groups across the country have developed self-help websites, and they’ve been hugely popular. In 2012 so far, more than 3 million people downloaded resources from, a nonprofit site that offers legal information and legal aid referrals. Through an affiliated site, people can answer simple questions and produce documents ready to file in court. More than 300,000 people have created documents this year, for things like wills, leases, and custody agreements.

In an ideal world, everyone who needs one would have a lawyer. But few people know better than lawyers for the poor just how far from ideal this world is.

Relying on technology “is a bit waving the white flag and saying we acknowledge we’re not going to help everybody, so here’s a second best solution,” O’Connor says. “And it is second best, but it is at least providing help to some people who otherwise wouldn’t get anything.”

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.