Welcoming Remarks by LSC Board Chair John G. Levi | 2021 Innovations in Technology Conference

Good afternoon, or good morning, depending on where you are in the country. I am John Levi, and it is my privilege to serve as the 10th chair of the Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation. On behalf of the board, welcome to LSC’s 2021 Innovations in Technology Conference.

This is the 21st time we have brought together technology experts, legal aid advocates, court personnel, pro bono coordinators, and other professionals at what has become the country’s largest event dedicated to expanding access to justice through technological innovation.

But this year is different, of course, as the virtual structure of our conference very much reflects the technology it promotes. Yes, innovations in technology have made it possible to convene this Conference, and while we will miss the spontaneous camaraderie and sharing of ideas that occur when we meet in person, the ability to take part without leaving home has made it possible for many more of you to join us for this year’s conference. The 876 registrants shatters by several hundred the attendance record set last year. 

The challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic have forced the legal community to fully embrace the need for technological innovation.

Legal aid organizations and the courts are using new, or expanding the use of existing, online processes and platforms such as electronic filing, case management, secure payment tools, Zoom, Facebook Live, and other video- and teleconference applications for meetings, hearings, and Online Dispute Resolution.

Many of the more than 40 sessions that will take place at our conference over the next two days will, in fact, focus on how legal aid organizations and the courts have quickly adapted to use technology in response to the pandemic. Other sessions will cover a wide variety of topics, including self-help technology, improving the user experience, how regulatory reform can expand access to justice, and the Legal Navigator online portal designed to simplify and improve access to legal information and service providers.

Promoting the development of innovative technology at this conference, to help make our legal system more fairly accessible, is just one of LSC’s initiatives in this arena.

Until a few years ago, this event was called the TIG Conference because it focused on LSC’s Technology Initiative Grants, our signature technology grants program that has helped drive innovation in legal technology since its inception two decades ago. Through this remarkable program, LSC has supported more than 755 projects totaling nearly $70 million. TIG-funded projects have created mobile apps, videoconferencing technology, triage and online intake systems, and multi-language legal education resources.

This year, Upsolve, a TIG-funded free online bankruptcy service, was featured on TIME magazine’s Best Inventions of 2020 list. Since launching in 2018, Upsolve has helped relieve more than $250 million in total debt nationwide.

Just a few months ago, LSC made its annual TIG-grant awards to 24 legal services organizations totaling nearly $4 million. Among these newly funded initiatives are several projects that will improve organizations’ online self-help resources. Other projects will bolster existing case management and intake systems to allow legal services providers to more effectively serve clients. Several organizations will use TIG funding to create more intuitive, mobile-first websites.

In addition to the TIG program, LSC has also convened two technology summits that brought together leaders in the field and produced results that stretched well beyond the legal tech community.

The second summit, held in 2212 and 13, issued a report that set an ambitious goal to “provide all low-income Americans with some form of effective assistance with their essential civil legal needs.”

In a recent episode of Talk Justice, LSC’s terrific new podcast program launched this past August, leading tech journalist Bob Ambrogi called that report “a really visionary document seven years ago and it still is 100% timely and relevant today.”

Indeed, The Conferences of Chief Justices and State Court Administrators adopted the goal of the report as an aspirational goal of their own in 2016, and it has helped shape the discussion of civil legal aid since, placing technology at the center.

LSC promotes the development of innovative legal aid technology because it is absolutely necessary in order to narrow the nation’s yawning justice gap—the difference between the civil legal needs of low-income Americans and the resources available to meet those needs.

Based on pre-COVID Census figures, nearly 59 million Americans qualified for LSC-funded civil legal assistance because they were living at 125 percent of the federal poverty guidelines or below, last year. But that estimate and number sadly will increase significantly due to the pandemic. 

LSC’s 2017 Justice Gap Report concluded that low-income Americans received inadequate or no professional help for 86% of the civil legal problems they faced in a given year. And a 2019 survey of LSC’s grantees found, during a robust economy, that 42 percent of the legal problems presented received no help of any kind because of a lack of resources.

While we are grateful that Congress included $465 million for LSC in the FY 2021 appropriations legislation passed a few weeks ago, set off a $25 million increase, it is not nearly enough to meet this unmet need — in fact, it is only about half of what in today’s dollars would have been the $880 million appropriated just two years after LSC’s founding in the 1970s, when only 12% of a smaller U.S. population qualified for LSC funded assistance.

So, it won’t surprise you that our LSC Board, for fiscal year 2022, is seeking a budget of $1 billion from the new Congress. As we focus attention on the need to increase funding to close this justice gap, we also need to address another divide, one that has also affected the justice gap, and that is the digital divide. 

I mentioned earlier some of the ways legal aid organizations and the courts are adapting technology to meet the challenges of pandemic. Many of these innovations will continue to transform the future legal landscape for the better.

But many of the most vulnerable citizens served by our grantees will not be able to benefit from them because they are still shut out of the digital world by a lack of access or resources, or both. In fact, Pew Research Center reported just this past May that 44 percent of adults in households with incomes below $30,000, the population our grantees serve, don’t have broadband.

If technology is crucial to narrowing the justice gap, then closing this digital divide is crucial to the effective and equitable use of that technology. 

The world is changing and our understanding of equal access to justice must change with it. Digital equity is now an essential aspect of justice equity. And without this equity, the country’s foundational value, the rule of law, is in peril, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor powerfully observed:

“The rule of law is the foundation for all our basic rights. Yet, how can a country built on that premise ultimately fulfill its promise to its citizens if all are not able to fairly access the legal system?”

Attorney General Nominee Judge Merrick Garland reaffirmed the importance of the rule of law and equal access to justice last week as he accepted his nomination on the day after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol:

"As everyone who watched yesterday’s events in Washington now understands — if they did not before — the Rule of Law is not just some lawyer’s turn-of-phrase. It is the very foundation of our democracy.

The essence of the Rule of Law is that like cases are treated alike: That there not be one rule for Democrats and another for Republicans, one rule for friends and another for foes; one rule for the powerful and another for the powerless; one rule for the rich and another for the poor — or different rules depending on one’s race or ethnicity.

And the essence of its great corollary, Equal Justice Under Law, is that all citizens are protected in the exercise of their civil rights.”

As citizens of this wonderful country, it is our collective responsibility to heed this call to action to preserve the rule of law and ensure the future of our democracy for generations of Americans to come.

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