About LawHelp Interactive
LawHelp Interactive is a website that helps individuals without lawyers generate legal documents for free. Pro Bono Net, Inc., a New York nonprofit corporation, provides the site to low-income people, lawyers and their staff who give not-for-profit services or reduced-fee legal help. LHI lets users freely create their legal documents by completing a questionnaire that guides the document assembly. The site also assists legal professionals who use legal documents and court forms for low-income people, to edit completed forms, manage their case files and share answers within their teams/firms. Legal organizations in more than 40 states use LHI so that those without lawyers and their staff save time in creating court forms and legal documents. Nonprofit legal aid programs and courts learn through LHI how to develop interactive forms for their respective states and special projects. LHI users can access training and technical support and tap into a national community of form developers and access-to-justice stakeholders.
Increasing Access to Justice
People in the U.S. look to the justice system to enact their rights and welfare, but costs, inefficiencies and other factors deny them real access. The Justice Needs and Satisfaction in the United States of America 2021 report and survey of more than 10,000 people found that 66% experienced at least one legal issue in the last four years, with only 49% of those wholly resolved. This is for all income levels in the US. The Justice Index found that in 28 States and territories there is one civil legal aid attorney for 10,000 below 200% of the Federal poverty level. In the US, there are only approximately a total of 10,000 civil legal aid attorneys for 87.9 million people below 200 FPL. Obviously, that is not enough to meet the need, and so free complete, safe, and reliable online forms are a key way to meet the needs of the many that need help creating their own letters and pleadings.
The Justice Needs 2021 report found that handling paperwork was among the most common and effective interventions to resolve legal problems. PBN knew that in 2001 and has worked tirelessly to empower legal professionals to bring low-income people the capability to complete the paperwork to protect their rights, livelihoods and general welfare through the LHI website.
How can people who don’t have the means to afford a lawyer get their legal work done? That’s 80% of the low income population in need, if not more,” —Claudia Johnson, Program Manager LawHelp Interactive, Pro Bono Net.
The LHI site helps people develop sophisticated legal documents from guided online interviews. It assists low-income people without an attorney, pro bono lawyers and nonprofit organizations working with vulnerable groups of people to complete forms and produce court documents to resolve legal issues, primarily in cases regarding child support and custody, divorce, domestic violence, debt collection, foreclosures, and evictions. Other forms include public agency benefit applications, letters to landlords documenting tenant problems and correspondence between private parties. In multiple states, the LHI powered forms are available in court based self help centers, in law libraries, in public libraries, legal clinics for public use, and through direct assistance by court and legal aid staff.
LHI aims to provide low-income people with the tools and ability to voice their needs and concerns to decision-makers who can grant the remedy requested or resolve a particular dispute. “In 2006, no one believed that online forms would be an answer to access to justice—PBN proved it can be done,” says Bart Earle, vice president at Capstone Practice Systems, which helped design the LHI server structure. Capstone remains behind the scenes as HotDocs experts supporting PBN and a growing community of people provide access to justice.
Public and Private Partners: LHI and HotDocs
In 2001, the Legal Services Corporation commissioned a study to examine the available technology to improve access to justice through online document automation. HotDocs emerged as a top contender and has continued to be so year over year after regular reviews of new software solutions.
“The core partnership relationship between Pro Bono Net and AbacusNext is the gold standard in public-private partnerships.” —Claudia Johnson
PBN manages the LHI site and licenses the AbacusNext HotDocs Server to support legal professionals nationwide in creating templates, guided interviews and instructions that generate and output 100,000s of actionable legal documents and court forms. The LHI server provides web-based document assembly powered by HotDocs software. Users find and select the correct form, then complete a guided interview on the LHI website. The form combines with its corresponding HotDocs template to generate an interactive interview that, when complete, outputs a legal document or court form. And LHI lets the user then select how they best want to share that document.
Before the recession in 2008, PBN trained attorneys to use HotDocs, LHI and other tools to help low-income groups. When the recession hit the courts hard and legal aid organizations lost funding, LHI’s capacity grew to relieve courts and support people who couldn’t get assistance from legal aid attorneys. “Only two out of 10 people end up with an attorney when they apply to legal aid,” says Johnson. LHI expanded from helping legal aid staff to assisting people in helping themselves in large volume from 2008 to 2012. Now LHI is used in 49 states.
Every state and territory has a statewide legal information website accessible via LawHelp.org, where citizens, legal aid organizations, and attorneys can access public law information and guided interviews through LHI. PBN, in partnership with dozens of nonprofit legal aid, pro bono, and court-based programs and libraries, maintains LawHelp.org and state LawHelp sites. The LHI server has 1,200 interviews actively in use. It also provides access to approximately 5,000 interview templates, a lending library of content and a software commons for developers to create and maintain forms that comply with state and local laws, according to Marc Lauritsen, HotDocs expert and president of Capstone Practice Systems.
In 2021 LHI supported more than a million free sessions that generated needed legal documents for low-income citizens. In 2022, LHI created over 825,000 document packages. Every day LHI creates 840 accounts for those who use the forms for free. It has on average 2554 persons per day using the LHI platform. LHI packages comprise more than one document, including explanations of the legal process undertaken and instructions on what to do with the papers and how to follow through LHI lets people email forms, share answers, efile in selected states, and more, so it is a lot more than just printing forms.
“Over time, HotDocs has developed and continues to offer an incredible amount of robustness and capacity to create really complex documents, removing the complexities for someone who is not an attorney,” says Johnson. “The software produces incredible output, comprising packages, instructions, and guidance for people who create legal documents independently.”