Technology Making Law Accessible?

technology-785742_1920

 

As we have talked about before, the amount of civil law lawyers available to the public is dramatically less than what is needed in this country. Civil cases do not have a right to defense, even though a civil case can end with a person going to jail, losing custody of their children, losing health care coverage, or losing a home. Out of the five people who need a civil lawyer’s help, four of those people do not have access to it.

 

Landlords, creditors, and companies always have lawyers, tenants and debtors almost never do.

 

While most state bar associations support a civil right to counsel, and 18 different states are considering laws to guarantee a lawyer in certain civil situations, but we may have a long time to wait until that time. So what can be done in the meantime? Well, Matthew Stubenberg may have an answer that can help ease one of the burdens associated with lack of available civil law help.

 

While a student of law at University of Maryland in 2010 doing a clinic full of expungements -helping clients fill out and file petitions to erase qualifying parts of a criminal record. Even if there is no conviction, and even if there is, there are some lifelong ramifications to the effects of the records that can include homelessness from inability to get a job.

 

Maryland has a public database called Case Search that you can use to pull up relevant information to help you fill out the required parts of the forms, but the information transfer process can be long and tedious. “We spent all this time moving data from Case Search onto our forms,” Stubenberg said. “We spent maybe 30 seconds on the legal piece. Why could this not be easier? This was a problem that could be fixed by a computer.”

 

After law school he dusted off his coding skills and built a software that automatically transferred the tedious work into the new forms, helped determine if the case can, in fact, be expunged under the guidelines, and prints a completed form needing only a signature and filing with the court. Called MDExpungement, it puts one more thing that a civilian can do into their own hands. In October of 2015 there was a change in a Maryland law that made more cases applicable for the expunging process. Between October 2015 and March 2016, people filed almost eight thousand petitions in Baltimore City District Court, and more than two-thirds of those petitions came from MDExpungement.
While there are legal groups that are fighting to help bring civil law aid to those who cannot afford a lawyer in almost every state, the more that people can utilize technology to build systems that help, rather than disenfranchise, those who cannot afford legal counsel, the better off we all will be in the long run. We have made some strides in this area in regards to credit, taxes, and other financial applications. The next step is to make civil law easier to navigate on your own.

“Equal Justice Under Law” not Really Equal

EqualJusticeUnderLaw

 

In the U.S. Constitution, the phrase “Equal Justice Under Law” is promise the the law will uphold justice equally for all in our courts. The National Center for Access to Justice created the Justice Index. From the website: “Justice depends on having a fair chance to be heard, regardless of who you are, where you live, or how much money you have. At minimum, a person should be able to learn about her rights and then give effective voice to them in a neutral and nondiscriminatory, formal or informal, process that determines the facts, applies the rule of law, and enforces the result. That is Access to Justice”

But, according to the Justice Index’s numbers, we are failing our country in law and other legal areas. The way the numbers break down, there is less than one lawyer who can provide free legal aid in civil cases for every 10,000 Americans who need representation but live under the poverty line and cannot afford it.

“[These are] life and death kinds of matters, when you consider that people are being evicted from their homes, facing the loss of their homes in foreclosure or loss of their children in family court,” said David Udell, the director of the National Center for Access to Justice at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law which created the Justice Index.

You are probably aware, either from personal experience or television and movies, of the idea of having a court-appointed lawyer, or the right to counsel. However, most are not aware that this only applies to criminal cases, not civil ones. Civil law includes rent disputes, debt collections, domestic violence, child support, credit and employment issues, evictions, custody cases, and even civil rights cases. There are roughly the same amount of criminal and civil cases adjudicated every year in the United States, and while there are some organizations out there built to help provide aid, there is no burden on the legal system to bear the weight of these civil law needs.

But in addition to a dearth of lawyers, there is also a severe lack of education. The perceived high cost of filing fees prevent thousands of Americans from pursuing justice, but only 12 states have laws that require court employees to inform the public that they can waive those fees. The other states have no obligations. When you consider that almost every state (48 in total) have raised the fees of both criminal and civil courts in the last five years, this lack of available knowledge makes things more unsettling. And in some cases the lack of ability to pay court fees can keep a citizen seeking justice in an incarceration limbo.

This goes even further than lack of ability to pay. For those citizens for whom English is a second language, there are more obstacles than ever. There is no clear avenue for individuals to understand the civil law system. Almost half of all states have no interpreter requirements for staff. Many courts with no interpreter regulations make non-English speakers pay for the services of an interpreter. This is leaving people facing foreclosure or fighting domestic abuse completely without state resources of what their options might be, and the proper steps to take in pursuing a civil case.

The Justice Index breaks down into four categories: Attorney Access: Number of Attorneys for People in Poverty, Self-Representation Access: Support for People Without Lawyers, Language Access: Support for People With Limited English Proficiency,  Disability Access: Support for People With Disabilities. (an obscene 45 states do not provide court employees dedicated to helping those with mental disabilities.)

From the website Pacific Standard: “funding for the Legal Services Corporation, the federal agency that supports and monitors civil legal aid in the U.S., is meager. According to a 2013 report from the Center for Law and Social Policy, LSC funding “today purchases less than half of what it did in 1980, the time when LSC funding provided what was called ‘minimum access’ or an amount that could support two lawyers for each 10,000 poor people in a geographic area.” This is the result of both inflation and budget reductions that severely hindered the agency in 1982, 1992, and 2012. Between 2010 and 2012 alone, the LSC lost 10.3 percent of its legal aid staff. 

While state sources supposedly made up the difference, austerity measures born from the 2008 Great Recession — when coupled with an uptick in civil actions stemming from foreclosures, consumer credit disputes, layoff disputes, and other recession-related conflicts — have left courts without adequate funding. As a result, legal aid attorneys are drowning in cases.”

 

Civil Cases – Wrongful Termination

Abogado Aly Wrongful Termination One very common type of civil law case is that of wrongful termination. Wrongful termination can fall under many categories. The first is discrimination. It is illegal for an employer to fire an employee because of their race, religion, sex, nationality, age, and in some jurisdictions, sexual orientation. A couple of weeks ago, a Houston man by the name of Odell Hyden, filed a lawsuit against his company for age discrimination. Hyden had worked for Hagemeyer and its predecessor for over 50 years, and in April of 2013, he was let go for “poor performance.” Hyden alleges that this had nothing to do with performance and everything to do with his age. He is accusing his company for age discrimination, retaliation, and violations of the Human Rights Act.

This brings us to our second type of wrongful termination: retaliation. Retaliation is when the employer fires his or her employee because they have submitted a discrimination claim or are participating in a discrimination investigation. Retaliation is forbidden in the United States under civil rights law.

The next type of wrongful termination is an employee’s refusal to commit an illegal act. This should go without saying; however, it is still written in the constitution. If an employer asks an employee to perform an illegal act and he refuses, the employer may not fire the employee.

The last type of wrongful termination is when an employee is fired for not following the company’s termination procedures. Most companies have a procedure when terminating and employee. If that employee is let go before finishing the procedures, they might have a claim for wrongful termination.

In the US, there is no single wrongful termination law. There are several laws and court rulings that define the concept. Wrongful termination has become the most common labor claim in the United States.