Jane (whose name changed for privacy purposes) had been living with her elderly mother for more than 20 years in a rent-stabilized apartment in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. But three years ago, Jane’s landlord began filing frivolous lawsuits against her and her mother in an effort to evict them from their home.
While Jane was delinquent with rent, her apartment was in a state of disrepair — with mold, cockroaches, and chipping paint throughout. The abusive and neglectful behavior of her landlord was exhausting. As her landlord continued to her harass her and her mother, Jane watched in frustration as other units in her building were remodeled for new, higher-paying renters. Her home, however, was ignored.
Then Jane discovered a Web application called JustFix.nyc in early April, and began using it to take proactive measures against her landlord. Through JustFix, she documented the conditions through photos and case notes, created and mailed an official letter of complaint (which was automatically generated through her account), and finally filed her case in NYC Housing Court.
As a result, Jane and her mother were able to secure succession rights, and their landlord was ordered by the judge to make repairs. This type of resolution may not have been possible without technology.
If technology works so well in a legal setting, why haven’t we seen a greater breadth of legal tech solutions?
It’s likely because the business model for law — billable hours — doesn’t incentivize for efficiency. Until now tech innovations have been slow to infiltrate the legal system.
Emerging startups like JustFix.nyc and legal tech products like LegalZoom and DocuSign have lowered the barrier to entry for legal protection that was previously confined to law offices. Now anyone can write their will or incorporate a company without having to seek legal counsel. The dissolution of the traditional legal business model is good news for public interest law.
Access to justice is a fundamental human right, but most can’t afford to hire legal representation when the need arises. Public defenders, pro bono lawyers, and immigration attorneys provide a great service to citizens, yet the demand for legal support far outweighs the supply of legal aid services. There simply aren’t enough public interest lawyers to go around. Financial hardship shouldn’t be a barrier to justice. Fortunately, simple applications of technology can streamline legal representation, and with wider adoption, may reduce a key contributor to the economic inequality equation.
While law firms have been slow to embrace new disruptive technologies, public interest law is different. Tech allows them to serve more clients. It’s a disruption for good, and nonprofit tech companies are spearheading this movement.
Organizations like JustFix.nyc, in partnership with legal aid groups and community-based organizations, help tenants prepare legal documentation of substandard housing conditions so tenants can self-advocate and, if necessary, self-represent in housing court.
Statistics reveal 90% of landlords are represented in housing court, while 90% of tenants are not. This leads to negative outcomes. When tenants are armed with better documentation, these situations can be addressed through mediation instead of court, reducing the number of cases that must pass through the justice system.
On their own, only 10% of New Yorkers living in deficient housing succeed in securing repairs or preventing eviction. With the support of the JustFix app, tenants in neglectful housing situations have a 66% success rate in achieving housing justice.
While pro or lo-bono legal representatives are still vastly over-tasked, automating administrative and referral processes frees up valuable time and can be a life-changing intervention. GoodCall, a triage hotline, provides a direct line to legal support for the arrested before their cases advance without representation.
This is essential for individuals who are arrested for seemingly arbitrary or unjust reasons. Typically their only hope for legal support lies within a short window of time, a precinct payphone, and the few numbers they have memorized. This results in wrongful imprisonments and is a huge issue with the current criminal justice system.
But Good Call’s Twilio-powered triage hotline has proven effective in connecting the arrested to lawyers within a critical time period. This past year a young man was arrested in the middle of the night for suspected robbery. His mother was worried her son would vanish into the criminal justice system. She had learned about Good Call from a member of the local community, and using the hotline was able to call in and connect with a free attorney in under 60 seconds.
The lawyer quickly located her son and arrived at the precinct 24 hours before he was set to see a judge, whereas most individuals only see a lawyer 5 minutes before trial. There the lawyer witnessed a violation of police protocol firsthand. The violation was brought up as part of the defense, leading to the young man being released by the judge. Good Call improves legal efficiency and provides the timely support needed to decrease wrongful detainment.
UpSolve, a sort of TurboTax for bankruptcy, can help many avoid the legal costs of filing for Chapter 7. It’s clear that cost is an obstacle here. 19 million American households are eligible to file for bankruptcy, yet only 500,000 Chapter 7 cases were filed in 2016. UpSolve’s digital application guides individuals through the process of bankruptcy filing, translating digital form responses into court-ready documents. This can save individuals upwards of $1,000. If a case become too complex, individuals are referred to bankruptcy lawyers.
It’s not just indigent clients that can benefit from legal tech interventions. VisaBot’s immigration bot uses artificial intelligence to walk people through the entire process of applying for and securing H1-B, DACA and B-2 Extension Visas. Instead of working one-on-one with an immigration lawyer, applicants simply download VisaBot’s Facebook Messenger chat bot, submit necessary information, supporting documents, and their personal story, and the bot makes sure all the details are properly filed.
VisaBot sticks with applicants until they have their visa in hand. If the bot can’t resolve questions, cases escalate to a Skype call with an immigration attorney. The intention is to reduce legal fees by automating the mundane administrative tasks that typically require applicants seek legal support.
The use case for legal tech is obvious, but the market has remained unaddressed until now. There’s a growing need for increased justice for people otherwise left behind by our legal systems. As legal tech gains momentum, investors like Open Society Foundations, Google.org, and Omidyar Network are leading the way in supporting these startups, that are unanimously nonprofit. Open Society Foundations’ fresh infusion of $18 billion, making it the second largest philanthropic organization in the U.S., could be a promising signal for entrepreneurs building technology for legal empowerment.
Lawyers aren’t going away. We need them. But right now technology and tech philanthropy have a huge opportunity to fill an existing gap in justice and legal equality.