There's a gaping hole in the legal justice system that isn't discussed as much as it needs to be: access. Most Americans cannot afford legal representation, no matter how urgent or pressing the issue is. A report was released at the end of 2013 by the Legal Services Corporation, a nonprofit established by US Congress that advocates for fair legal access, that stated the nation's programs address only 20% of the legal needs of low-income people.
The report offered possible solutions to this glaring problem, including state-run programs to help defendants representing themselves or assembly-line style paperwork processes to speed up cases. But those solutions take time, so harnessing technology to address the issue immediately is important and necessary. Here are eight apps, created in hackathons, by startups, or by law firms, that are helping to bridge the gap.
PaperHealth was made for the people that have no advanced plans for health care emergencies to create living wills and health care proxies, or the contract to have someone make health care decisions for you. It is for use by individuals to keep the information on their phones, or hospitals, to collect the information for families.
The app, which should be available for free soon, was created during a recent hackathon held by the American Bar Association and Suffolk University Law School. The hackathon was held to address issues in the legal justice system. Bringing together lawyers, students, developers, and advocates resulted in creative ideas to use mobile technology to make a difference.
Disastr, which was also created during the same hackathon, was made to help people in times of emergent need of legal assistance. This could include getting food stamps, disaster recovery, healthcare, solving insurance issues, etc. Disastr was made to function as a web app, Android app, or iOS app, though it has yet to be submitted to the app stores. The app itself is also a great example of how easy it is to get started and make a difference with mobile software. The app's creators stated, "With an old laptop, an internet connection, and three entirely web-based tools (Como, Canva and Google Docs) we created disastr with two people in less 12 hours at no cost."
3. Due Processor
Due Processor is a really simple tool: a web service that allows people to figure out if they are eligible for low-income legal services. By plugging in income, family information, employment statistics, and the charges, the website will tell users their possible sentences and fines, without having to pay anyone for that information.
Shake is a web and mobile app that helps you create and send legally binding agreements and contracts in seconds. The company is striving to make legal access for people and small businesses quick, easy, understandable, and affordable. Choose from a template or make your own agreement, send it to the other party, and have it signed. Shake is available for iOS, Android, and on the web.
LegalZoom is a legal solutions site for small business owners and families. The company released a smartphone app last year. It was named one of the best digital tools for entrepreneurs by Forbes. The company offers many resources for starting particular types of businesses (i.e. nonprofits, LLCs, or partnerships) and running them, as well as health care information, living wills, and other legal guidance for families of entrepreneurs.
6. Ask a Lawyer: Legal Help
With this free Android app, people can access lawyers all over the country who can answer their legal questions about the legal process, rights, what kind of defense they would need, and more. The answers are emailed by the lawyers, and the app can also serve as a platform for people to find possible representation after their questions are answered.
7. Rocket Lawyer
This San Francisco-based company that received funding from Google Ventures is an online legal services company that provides legal documents, forms, and other paperwork at a more affordable price. The company also has a Twitter-like service that allows people to ask lawyers for advice using their computer or smartphone for free.
The Mikva Juvenile Justice Council in Chicago is creating an app for young people to understand and experience the legal process for juvenile offenders. The tool will help juvenile offenders transition from corrections facilities back into the community, and will help young people in general understand the expungement process, which is the sealing of prior convictions or arrests. It will make that process much easier and more accessible, so teens can start the process from their phones. The project is being funded by the Knight Foundation, and the group is currently working on a prototype.
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Lyndsey Gilpin has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.