Pew Charitable Trusts: Taking an Evidence-Based Approach to Improving Civil Justice Systems

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The civil justice system does not adequately serve most people who have legal problems, and the attempts to address the issue with technology have been fragmented and, in many cases, ineffective.

In a recent blog post, we highlighted the research of Rebecca Sandefur, Associate Professor of Sociology and the Law at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Her research documents the many attempts to introduce tech-based tools to help people with legal problems and to navigate legal systems.

The Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the largest research-oriented nonprofits, launched a Civil Legal System Modernization project late last year to look at the problem from the other end of the spectrum: What is it about the way our courts work that make it so hard for ordinary people to navigate them and get the resolutions they need?

The project’s Senior Officer, Erika Rickard, is focused on both documenting the scope and scale of the problems that people encounter in the civil legal system, and on identifying and testing some potential solutions. “In both of those areas, we see a real need for a stronger evidence base,” Rickard says. “This is where Pew can be a really helpful resource, by bringing more data and analysis and evaluation to bear on the decision-making that’s happening in courts and in the civil legal system more broadly.”

On the research side, the current focus is on collecting data on court trends and the rise in debt-collection lawsuits and other high-volume types of cases. This involves really picking apart and understanding the day-to-day business of state civil court systems. “It’s pretty striking to see the lack of granular data that’s reported by states, and how different the reality of those cases is from the conventional wisdom about two parties before a court and the judge making a neutral decision,” Rickard says. “That’s really not the way that a debt-collection case looks today.”

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Erika Rickard

Those kinds of gaps can be addressed by policymakers, but without the data and understanding of actual experiences and outcomes in courts, these kinds of issues rarely rise to the top of policymakers’ priority lists. “But when you look at what’s actually happening in our court systems and the effect on housing stability or family stability or economic stability, those are issues that do resonate with policymakers,” she explains. “Being able to make those kinds of connections — between high-resonance policy issues of today with what happens in our civil legal system — is one area where we can really make a difference.”

When it comes to potential tech-based solutions that address justice gap issues, Pew is focused on two areas: i) legal information and assistance portals; and ii) court-annexed online dispute resolution (ODR).

Pew is partnering with the Legal Services Corporation on the Legal Navigator project, which is piloting statewide portals in Alaska and Hawaii. The first phase of the Navigator project include participation from Microsoft, which developed a machine-learning system that will help people articulate their legal problem and guide them to the right legal resources. But the nationwide focus of the Pew project gives Rickard the opportunity to look at portal technology across the board, beyond just the Navigator pilot.

“Legal Navigator is one example of newer technology tools that are available to help people look for information online and get connected to legal help and legal resources,” she notes. “We can roll up our sleeves and get into the work with Alaska and Hawaii on the key technology components that make a portal work well, how are people actually engaging with that system, and identifying the lessons that we can learn from that project to share with other portals and vice-versa.”

“This is where Pew can be a really helpful resource, by bringing more data and analysis and evaluation to bear on the decision-making that’s happening in courts and in the civil legal system more broadly.”

This work will go a long way toward introducing standards and best practices into the multitudes of state and local portals already out there. “We’re seeing more and more projects that are not just a single comprehensive website, but that have different modules or pieces of interactive tools that they can plug in, replace, and share with each other. So, if a state builds something like a natural language processor, it won’t have to be built over from scratch by another state; it can be shared,” says Rickard.

Online dispute resolution (ODR), which got its start in the e-commerce sector as a way to resolve small disputes over online purchases, is the other area of tech focus for Rickard. “We’re seeing a really dramatic increase in state and local courts that are interested in adopting ODR platforms and moving part or all of their court process online,” she says. “We’re working hand-in-hand with the National Center for State Courts to provide technical assistance and support to a handful of states that are piloting this initiative, and we’re also engaging in outcome evaluation to see what actually happens when you move a court process online.”

Many exciting technology-based tools for addressing many aspects of access to justice challenges — but still, too many of them are being pursued in isolated silos and lack standardization and scalability. With the Civil Legal System Modernization project taking a nationwide and evidence-based approach, that could go a long way toward developing more comprehensive responses to helping individuals navigate their individual legal problems.