Miami Law Joins Project to Lower Barriers to Justice


JoNel Newman and Melissa Swain of Miami Law's Health Rights Clinic plan to help develop a course model that will teach law students to use technological tools to make justice more easily available to low-income, self-represented litigants. Newman is an Associate Professor of Clinical Legal Education and the director of the Health Rights Clinic, and Swain is a supervising attorney for the clinic, which was formerly known as the Health and Elder Law Clinic.

Details of the plan were to be unveiled this week at the annual meeting of the American Association of Law Schools in New Orleans by the Center for Computer-Assisted Legal Instruction, known by the acronym CALI. Representatives of the center said they had reached agreements with faculty members from six law schools to develop course kits as part of the Access to Justice Clinical Course Project, abbreviated to A2J Clinic Project.

In addition to Miami Law, the participating institutions are Columbia Law School, Concordia University School of Law, CUNY School of Law, Georgetown University Law Center, and UNC School of Law.

The aim is to develop and document a course model that uses the A2J Author program to teach law students how technology can be used to help litigants gain access to the legal system. CALI will use those models to assist other law schools in establishing clinical courses as parts of their law school curriculum. A2J Author is a software tool developed by CALI and the Center for Access to Justice and Technology at Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law to provide easier access to justice for self-represented litigants by enabling lawyers and law students to build web-based tools called A2J Guided Interviews. These interviews allow users to complete court documents by presenting a series of easy-to-understand questions. Graphics lead users to courthouses, where documents can be filed.

"The A2J Clinic Project will help participating professors develop courses that use A2J Author as an educational tool," CALI Executive Director John Mayer said. "We have always worked as an innovative force to push legal education to change for the better. Previously, we've done that by developing computerized lessons to supplement in-class instruction and e-Langdell coursebooks, but the A2J Clinic Project will develop course kits that our member schools can incorporate into their clinical curriculum."

Professor Ronald W. Staudt of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law has been using A2J Author as part of the Justice and Technology Practicum for three years, automating forms for use by legal-aid organizations in Illinois and elsewhere. "Eighty percent of the legal needs that low-income people face go unmet each year," explained Professor Staudt, who is also director of the Center for Access to Justice and Technology. "My students just finished developing tools that will be used by statewide legal aid websites in Nebraska, North Carolina and Illinois to lower the barriers to justice self-represented litigants face."

Students in Professor Staudt's class learn how to use software tools that will soon become standard, while developing self-help resources that assist low-income people start a lawsuit, file for divorce, or petition for an order of protection.

"The legal services market is rapidly changing," he said. "Experience with document automation and document assembly tools is going to be vital for new attorneys, but very few law schools offer courses that provide hands-on experience using these tools. We've addressed that gap in the legal education system in a way that will also allow us help mitigate the access to justice problem."

Each participating faculty member will integrate Professor Staudt's model into his or her own course to develop an original academic offering. Upon completion of the course, the faculty members will deliver a course kit that includes a syllabus, a list of course materials, and a process for completing A2J Guided Interviews, along with a teacher's manual explaining the methodology for teaching the course.

CALI is a nonprofit consortium of law schools whose mission includes promoting "access to justice through the use of computer technology." A2J Author is used in more than 30 states, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and Canada. More than 880 A2J Guided Interviews are being used on the national server Law Help Interactive. These A2J Guided Interviews have been used by self-represented litigants more than 2,000,000 times. A redesigned A2J Author 5.0 is currently in development, and will allow users to access the software from any web browser, including a smartphone.