Simplifying Legal Help

Latest News from Legal Navigator

LSC Moves Forward with Legal Navigator Project

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and its partners are moving forward with the Legal Navigator portal following the completion of the machine learning system that will power it.

The Artificial Intelligence module at the heart of this learning system, new technology developed by Microsoft, will provide an interface that will allow people to describe their problems in their own words. The system will help them decide if it is a legal problem and, if so, how to solve it.

This is essential to meeting the goal of the project--establishing statewide legal portals to direct individuals with civil legal needs to the most appropriate forms of assistance available from legal aid orlganizations, the courts, the private bar, and community stakeholders.

Microsoft will continue to support the project with $100,000 in grants for additional technical assistance as LSC and its partners, Pro Bono Net and Pew Charitable Trusts, prepare the portal for piloting in Alaska and Hawaii.

Legal Navigator is a vital piece of the strategic plan these states developed as part of their Justice for All initiatives seeking to provide some form of effective assistance for 100% of people with a civil legal problem. The courts, legal aid programs, and the private bar are working together on these efforts to provide people with a wide range of options, from self-help to full representation.

For the pilot period, the states will provide content and forms to assist people with legal problems in three major areas: family, housing, and consumer. Social services organizations in each state are participating so users of Legal Navigator can find help with more than just legal issues.

"Legal Navigator is a centerpiece of the vision that emerged from LSC's Technology Summit several years ago--a vision that uses technology to provide some meaningful help to everyone with an essential civil legal problem and ensures that no one is ever turned away with no help at all,” said LSC President Jim Sandman. “LSC is grateful to Microsoft for its substantial investment in this project. We are committed to implementing the technology Microsoft has so generously developed--not only in Alaska and Hawaii, but in other states as well."

 

Milestone reached: AI at heart of Legal Navigator complete, will connect people with legal resources

Author: David A. Heiner, Microsoft Corporation

We live in a highly legalistic society, and we have no shortage of lawyers. But the allocation of lawyers to the range of legal problems people face is, to put it mildly, uneven. Those with money can hire lawyers, and those without cannot. Without a lawyer, people are left to navigate our complex legal system on their own. This hits working-class people hard, and can be devastating for low-income people, who may face the loss of a job, or a home, or even custody of their children, if they are unable to represent themselves effectively.

One challenge people face is simply finding accurate information relating to their legal problem. Legal aid resources are highly fragmented and legal rules and procedures vary from state to state and even county to county.  Simple web searches often fail to yield accurate information regarding the particular legal situation someone is confronting. This is why legal aid leaders and technologists came together in 2014, under the guidance of the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), to ask whether technology could help address this challenge. They imagined a web service that, through a pre-programmed script, would ask users questions and, on the basis of their answers, direct them to the right legal resources.

Fast forward just a couple of years — technology moves fast! — and we could imagine a system that would largely dispense with the pre-programmed scripts, enabling richer, more natural, and ultimately far more helpful interactions with users. We could imagine a system that would enable people to describe the problem they are facing in their own words, a system that would understand the user’s meaning (and not simply look for keywords, like a search engine), a system that could learn from interactions with users how best to help them navigate the legal system.  The magic ingredient: Artificial intelligence (AI).

Our eagerness to explore whether AI could help people who cannot afford a lawyer is why Microsoft and Pro Bono Net partnered with LSC in 2016 to build an AI-based “Legal Navigator.” Since then we’ve enlisted the Pew Charitable Trusts and Avanade to join the effort, partnered closely with legal aid and court personnel in our pilot states, Alaska and Hawaii, learned from focus groups with potential users, and developed a prototype of the system.

Today we’re pleased to announce a significant milestone in the development of Legal Navigator: The machine learning system that will power Legal Navigator is complete. Drawing on recent advances in natural language processing, Legal Navigator will provide a chatbot-like interface that will enable people to engage in conversation with the system and be directed to the right legal resources for the situation they face. Like other AI-based systems, Legal Navigator will get “smarter” the more it is used. Over time the system will even learn to understand colloquialisms and slang. And the more it is used, the better it will get at referring people to pertinent online information, to legal aid providers and to self-help systems where users can prepare their own legal filings.

For me, the most exciting aspect of this system is that it is designed as a platform that can benefit the entire legal aid community. The system is “extensible,” meaning that anyone (courts, legal aid providers, online legal document assembly providers) can plug in to add new capabilities to the system and enable a complete solution for users. (In addition to programmatic access through well-defined programming interfaces, the heart of the system — the AI that powers it — is available as open source on GitHub, one of the leading sites for open-source software development projects.) And, like other cloud-based technology platforms, the system is highly scalable. At relatively low cost, the system could be deployed in dozens of states or every state (and as more people used it, that would make the system smarter still).

Of course, we’re a long way from that today. But the AI module is complete, and our partners will now begin the next phase to prepare the product for initial testing in Alaska and Hawaii. Microsoft will continue to support the project as it moves forward by providing $100,000 in grants to be spent over the next two years on additional technical assistance for Legal Navigator.

It will be fascinating to learn how an AI-based solution can help people navigate the legal system. If you are in the legal aid community, please stay in touch with this project so we can collectively explore how best to deploy technology to address the access to justice gap.

Heiner also chairs the board at Pro Bono Net, a national nonprofit dedicated to leveraging the power of technology and collaboration to bridge the justice gap. 

 

The Possibilities of Statewide Justice Portals Highlighted at National Center for State Courts Conference

Sergio Alcubilla, Director of External Relations for Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, and Stacey Marz, Director of Self-Help & Language Access Services for the Alaska Court System shared the key functionalities of the statewide justice portals at eCourts 2018—an education conference put on by the National Center for State Courts. They discussed how the project intersects with Hawaii and Alaska’s Justice for All initiatives and how the technology strategies will allow for future nationwide replication.

Watch their presentation here.

 

'Legal Navigator' Recognized by Hawaii’s and Alaska’s Chief Justices for Potential to Narrow the Justice Gap 

LSC’s Legal Navigator project to establish statewide legal portals to direct individuals with civil legal needs to the most appropriate forms of assistance has been lauded by the chief justices in the states where the portal will be piloted—Alaska and Hawaii.

 “We hope that this tool will help regular people to overcome Alaska’s financial and geographical barriers to appropriate assistance,” said Alaskan Chief Justice Joel Bolger during his recent State of the Judiciary remarks.

In his State of the Judiciary speech last month, Hawaiian Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald also commended the tool for the instrumental role it could play in bridging the justice gap in Hawaii. 

“Another project that is garnering national attention is the ‘Legal Navigator’ portal, which was made possible thanks to the contributions of Microsoft, the Legal Services Corporation, Pro Bono Net, and the leadership of the Legal Aid Society of Hawai’i,” said Justice Recktenwald. “Microsoft has dedicated close to $2 million worth of resources to Hawai’i and Alaska to develop an online legal services portal that will use Artificial Intelligence to help people identify legal problems, and then access critical resources. This transformative project will launch later this year and will empower those whose voices might not otherwise be heard.”

The Artificial Intelligence module at the heart of Legal Navigator, new technology developed by Microsoft,  will provide an interface that will allow people to describe their problems in their own words. The system will help them decide if it is a legal problem and, if so, how to solve it. 

LSC and its partners, Pro Bono Net and Pew Charitable Trusts, are preparing the portal for piloting in the two states.

  

 

Introducing the Initiative

At the 2016 White House Access to Justice Summit, Microsoft, the Legal Services Corporation and Pro Bono Net announced a new partnership to develop statewide “justice portals” to help people navigate to the right resources in their state. The goal of the Portal initiative, dubbed Simplifying Legal Help, is to enable justice partners to collaborate in new and creative ways to provide some form of effective assistance to everyone with a civil legal problem. 

Left to Right: Brad Smith, Microsoft; Mark O'Brien, Pro Bono Net; Jim Sandman, LSC

 

“Many people find it difficult to access legal services,” said LSC President James J. Sandman. “The goal of the portals is to simplify that process by providing a single, statewide point of access to effective help for people needing civil legal assistance. Each user will be guided to available resources based on the nature of the matter and the user’s personal circumstances.”

Following a competitive application process, Alaska and Hawaii were selected as the jurisdictions to serve as pilots in the portal development.  The pilots aim to integrate and amplify existing efforts by legal aid organizations, courts and other service providers to help more people facing eviction, domestic violence and other civil law issues.  The technology will utilize innovative machine learning/AI technology to assist people in identifying what resources and services are best-suited to help them resolve their legal problem.

“We are delighted to have found legal aid, court, and community partners in Alaska and Hawaii who are committed to innovation designed to help individuals find the appropriate level of assistance to meet their legal needs, and that will allow state justice communities to deliver services more efficiently and effectively,” said Pro Bono Net Executive Director Mark O’Brien.

Watch David Heiner, Strategic Policy Advisor for Microsoft, describe the project in the video below at the July 2018 Board Meeting in Boise, Idaho. 

Developing access to justice portals in every state was one of the recommendations of LSC’s 2013 “Report of the Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice.” In 2015, the Conference of Chief Justices and Conference of State Court Administrators adopted a resolution supporting “the aspirational goal of 100 percent access to effective assistance for essential civil legal needs.” Technology strategies such as Legal Assist that expand access to justice are a widely viewed as central component of that vision.

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John Levi introducing Statewide Legal Access Portal Project.

“If you can’t afford a lawyer, then you can’t solve crippling housing, child custody, or civil litigation disputes,” said Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith.  “Technology can help bridge this justice gap by empowering people with the advice and services they need to lead fruitful lives.”

Work is well under way in both Alaska and Hawaii. To stay on top of developments, read the blog below.

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Read more about the State Portal Project and the Ideation Workshops in Alaska and Hawaii here.

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Alaska and Hawaii were chosen for this pilot for a variety of reasons. Explore the challenges and opportunities faced in simplifying legal help in these two states by following the links below.

Incubating Innovation along the Pacific Rim - Part I: Alaska

Incubating Innovation along the Pacific Rim - Part II: Hawaii 

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Gain a more in-depth understanding of the access to justice portal project.

Microsoft Helps Develop an AI-Powered Bridge to Legal Aid

New video on Statewide Access to Justice Portals

Hawaii's KHON2 Reports on Legal Assist Project

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Stay connected as the Legal Services Corporation, Microsoft and Pro Bono Net partner with justice communities in Alaska and Hawaii to develop statewide legal access portals that simplify the process of finding legal help. To offer feedback or comments, click below. 

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