Flinging open a digital doorway to the courthouse

first_img March 15, 2017 Jan Pudlow Senior Editor Regular News Flinging open a digital doorway to the courthouse Flinging open a digital doorway to the courthouse Senior Editor Creating a “digital doorway to the courthouse.” Figuratively changing the Latin words at the top of the courthouse to “Welcome! How Can We Help?” That’s how Jim Kowalski, managing partner at Jacksonville Area Legal Aid, Inc., described the idea behind the Florida Legal Access Gateway (FLAG), as he recently gave a status report of a pilot project in Clay County to the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice. Chief Justice Jorge Labarga called it “one of the most promising initiatives to come from the commission’s work, the concept of a statewide triage gateway to guide litigants through the legal process.” And former Bar President Greg Coleman, serving as chair of the Executive Committee, called it the commission’s “primary accomplishment” so far — a collaboration between Kowalski; Dominic “Donny” MacKenzie, immediate past president of The Florida Bar Foundation; William Van Nortwick, and Florida Justice Technology Center Director Joyce Raby, and many others.FLAG Pilot “You will learn how significant this portal is going to be, I would suggest not just for the citizens of Clay County and the state of Florida, but ultimately, I think this is going to act as a national model that is going to be adopted and help hundreds of millions of Americans,” Coleman predicted. But right now, not so much. The pilot in one county needs more time for a useful evaluation before expanding statewide. The FLAG pilot — currently only dealing with evictions and simplified divorce cases — was extended another six months until June because, “we do not yet have sufficient data to support a comprehensive evaluation,” according to the FLAG evaluation report. One of the big lessons learned is people may find forms on a computer, but they still need to talk to a real person to help fill them out. “We have realized that the obstacles facing self-represented litigants are perhaps even more daunting than initially perceived,” Kowalski, MacKenzie, and Van Nortwick wrote in a January 31 letter to Chief Justice Labarga. “We applaud your decision to include self-represented litigants as an initial focus area for the permanent commission.” On February 3, at the commission’s meeting in Tallahassee, MacKenzie and Kowalski gave a demonstration of the pilot project, showing how a person can use the system anonymously and how there is a clearly marked notice to get immediate help if it’s an emergency, such as domestic violence. Because the goal of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice is to not only bridge the justice gap for the poor but the working poor and middle class, MacKenzie explained the economic threshold to qualify for FLAG is 400 percent of federal poverty guidelines ($24,300 for a family of four) — or $97,200 for a family of four.Key Findings Among the key findings for the initial testing period from October 11, 2016, to November 30, 2016: • Out of all FLAG users, no one filed paperwork with the court. Not one FLAG user moved forward with litigation. • FLAG referred only one user to Jacksonville Legal Aid, but was from Duval County and could not be counted as a user within pilot parameters. • FLAG has made no referrals to Jacksonville Bar Lawyer Referral service. • FloridaLawhelp.org, started by the Foundation and now run by the FJTC, received 135 users/visits from FLAG. • When FLAG directs users to DIY Forms, a document assembly, forms-builder program created in collaboration between the clerks and the Office of the State Courts Administrator, the “landing page” is too complicated and family law forms contain a notary jurat that deems the form not immediately e-file-able (the user must download the form, find a notary, have the form notarized, scan the form back into the system, and then e-file the form). “It’s almost as if. . . experienced lawyers are writing for a law student, and we’re not writing them for the firefighter and schoolteacher who need to get a divorce,” Kowalski said of complicated DIY forms. “I do think, as we move forward, we appreciate. . . the opportunity to take a step back and collaborate and look at whether these systems are duplicative. Are they complicated? How do we get the landing to be inviting and comforting?”Triage Interviews In the first six weeks of the pilot program, there were 1,262 triage interview sessions, an average of 25 a day, Kowalski said. About 20 percent of those triage interview sessions were referred to four “help destinations”: • FloridaLawhelp.org and the DIY Forms program, self-help forms that sit on the E-filing Authority page, because they are intended to be immediately e-file-able once the forms are completed. • The clerk’s “low bono program,” offering face-to-face legal help for $1 a minute. • Three Rivers Legal Services, a Legal Services Corp.-funded entity; Jacksonville Legal Aid.$1 a minute One of the most exciting findings, Kowalski said, was the popularity of the low bono program hosted by Clay County Clerk of Court Tara Green, where lawyers from the Clay County Bar Association, primarily practicing in family law, give legal help for $1 a minute. “It worked as we expected. In large part, folks came in with forms partially completed, or in some cases all completed, or in some cases not completed, from the family law Supreme Court approved forms website,” Kowalski sad. “They needed the assistance of the lawyer to gain an understanding of whether they were completing the correct forms and whether, through that process, they were prepared to go to court to resolve their dissolution family law case.. . . “One of the major pieces that we heard over and over again from the user is they needed someone to talk to,” Kowalski said. “I think all of us who were involved in this project were significantly impressed with how hard it is to represent yourself in court and how much of an opportunity we have creating a digital doorway to the courthouse.” Clerk Green was summoned to the podium to answer a few questions. “What we have noticed from staff is that there is that gap when people come in and need another resource. We were very surprised at the success of low bono,” Green said. “I think one of our biggest hurdles that we are going to have to go over, and I think it’s one we can go over, is communicating this resource, that the FLAG system is out there and how to get it. Once we effectively do that, and we make it known as a resource, it will definitely get utilized. People will go that route.” Kowalski said he was struck with how hard it is to be a citizen with a legal problem trying to handle it without a lawyer, and that the commission needs a “strong focus on self-represented litigants as we move forward.” “How many times folks needing to file a family law case simply come to the clerk’s front window asking the most basic questions. And then they don’t file. They go back home, and they try to find something else about what they do next. And then they come back and ask a couple more questions of the clerk. And then they go home. And then they try to find what to do next,” Kowalski said. Pointing out the filing fee for a divorce is $400, MacKenzie said, “If you think the filing fee is intimidating, the paperwork you encounter when you step up to the counter at the clerk’s office is even more intimidating. What we found is. . . people simply turn away. It’s one thing to not be able to afford a filing fee. It’s another thing to not understand or try to fathom the paperwork. Then what people do is they go to the internet, and we’re hoping by going to the internet, they will find this FLAG triage, and it will be a little less daunting and a lot more accessible.” Lee County Clerk of Court Linda Doggett, who serves on the commission, said, “Clerks are not surprised at what you’ve learned. We’re very excited to have others learn what we have experienced every day, with both coming to the counter and not getting enough assistance to figure out how to represent themselves or how to move forward on a case. I think the idea is not to make decisions on their behalf but to just point them in the right direction so they can get where they need to be.”Self-Help Centers Calling the FLAG pilot “very exciting,” Doggett asked about the strategy going forward and whether they will consider other counties that already have low bono, self-help attorney consulting. “I mean, that’s the goal,” Kowalski said. “The goal is we’ve seen what are generally referred to as courthouse-based self-help centers.. . . In many states, those are structured through the court. In Florida, they are structured strongly through the clerks. That is absolutely a solution. Combining self-help centers with the build-out of the Florida Bar Referral Service, which obviously will be hugely informed by all the work here. Those two seem to be a strong component, along with taking that united step back and rethinking our forms process would be the three pieces to move forward on.” MacKenzie added: “We intend and hope to expand the subject matter well beyond the two subject matters. And we also hope that we expand statewide. In essence, what our plan is, this pilot has been extended until June, because we want to collect more data. Between now and June and next fall, we are going to be working internally on an RFP [request for proposals] for statewide application, so that should this thing be approved for statewide application, there will not be a lag or delay.. . . We’re going to assume we’re going to go statewide. One day we hope this will have hundreds of subject matters that people can get help for.” “We’ve already taken an exciting project that was birthed in another state [New Mexico],” Kowalski said. “We took their dream components and combined it with the clerks of court, and made it the example for the country. And we hope to continue to build.”last_img

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