Most individuals and small businesses don’t have access to affordable legal assistance. The problem is not that we don’t have enough lawyers; rather, there is a gap between what lawyers must charge and what clients can pay. This gap and the resulting tension is not sustainable – either for society or for the legal profession.
While this problem is compelling for business clients needing assistance with legal matters, it has reached the crisis level for low- and middle-income people who face well-defined legal issues in areas such as family law, landlord-tenant disputes and immigration.
Maine has acutely felt the effects of the access to justice gap; for example, 74 percent of the parties in state district court family law matters are forced to represent themselves.
The mission of the University of Maine School of Law Apps for Justice Project is to model how technology can be used to bridge this gap. Launched early this year and funded with a grant from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund, the Apps for Justice Project uses the powerful Neota Logic platform – the same platform that is used by multinational firms to routinize complex regulatory compliance issues – to develop and create practical, technology-based legal expert systems in the form of applications, or apps.
These apps provide guidance, information and action plans that enable low- and moderate-income Mainers to effectively address their specific civil legal problems, either alone or with the help of affordable counsel. In designing these apps, we endeavored to mirror the problem-solving process lawyers follow: the application of abstract principles to specific cases, beginning with diagnosis, proceeding to inference, and then to treatment.
To illustrate, a tenant with a rental problem is guided through a series of questions to diagnose their specific legal situation. With this information, the expert system identifies the problem (for example, a bedbug infestation) and then makes an inference that the landlord may be violating the law.
This inference is then matched to an action plan in the form of a personalized script to be used by the tenant to call the landlord and ask for help. The user is then provided with a follow-up demand letter addressed to the landlord, setting forth the tenant’s legal right to a pest-free home and reiterating the request to exterminate. If these actions do not resolve the tenant’s problem, the action plan directs the user to contact information for the relevant code enforcement officer, and a script to help the tenant make the call.
After integrating expert systems with accepted principles of legal analysis, our next step in app development was to incorporate learning from the fields of design and psychology by using thematic imagery and easily comprehended text in order to increase user engagement and improve the app’s usability. Our apps also address the mental state users find themselves in when facing a traumatic event such as a housing crisis or a divorce: compromised self-worth and dignity, leading to enervation and inaction.
Drawing on literature from the fields of public health, behavioral economics, cognitive psychology and sociology, our apps use affirming language that acknowledges the users’ trauma, and then offer stress management exercises to mitigate its effects.
We do not contend that technology-based expert systems will be a quick and comprehensive fix to the access to justice crisis in Maine; expert systems are time-consuming to both develop and maintain. They do, however, allow the scaling of guidance and information about solutions to legal problems, so that any individual with a well-defined legal problem and a smartphone or computer can get the help they need.
The positive response our apps have received during our testing phase attests that designed well, legal expert systems can offer a new paradigm for both law practice and self-help assistance. Expert legal systems can offer business lawyers and those who represent individuals the opportunity for increased efficiencies, allowing the provision of legal services to a greater number of clients at a lower-cost, without sacrificing quality or attention.
For low- and moderate-income Mainers who cannot afford any level of professional legal assistance, expert systems can be an additional element of Maine’s access to justice strategy.