The Filing Fairness Project is one of those only-at-Stanford-Law projects, and we’re proud to be part of the team that earlier this year launched this effort to widen access to justice in America. There’s no reason that court filings for matters like name changes, eviction defense, and domestic violence restraining orders need to be more complex and impenetrable than filing tax returns, and this project aims to fix that.
The “justice gap” in this country is real—and rapidly widening. In almost three-quarters of all civil litigation in the United States, at least one party does not have a lawyer. Low-income Americans, moreover, do not get any or enough legal help for 92 percent of their civil-legal problems, which involve securing and protecting basic needs such as housing, education, health care, and safety. Thirty-three percent of these individuals experienced at least one civil-legal problem linked to the COVID-19 pandemic in the past year. These access-to-justice issues disproportionately impact people of color, seniors, veterans, and survivors of domestic violence.
The impediments to securing legal assistance and representation not only lower a litigant’s chances of success in court, but also affect whether individuals seek relief at all. For example, filing a name change petition, a seemingly simple and low-stakes endeavor, often requires an applicant to fill out multiple forms, physically return them to a courthouse, and publish a legal notice in a newspaper. These processes discourage some from trying at all and burden both the applicants and the court administrators who must review the submitted forms. Coupled with wet signature and in-person notarization requirements, which may require applicants to physically go to the courthouse, many give up.
Efforts to address the gap have been focused on increasing legal aid resources—by funding hiring at legal aid organizations and encouraging more pro bono activity by lawyers. While these efforts are critical, they do little to improve outcomes for litigants who are self-represented. Technological innovation can help to fill the gap. While highly resourced corporations and law firms have seen the efficiency benefits of technological advancement in the legal space and have invested heavily in solutions, tools to streamline or expedite the filing process for self-represented litigants have been narrowly focused and lack long-term support. Useful software solutions depend on scale. Needless jurisdictional differences—not just from state to state, but from county to county—stunt innovation, as it makes little sense to invest in creating a tech tool to expedite filing in San Francisco if it can’t be used in San Jose.
The Filing Fairness Project began as a Stanford Law School Policy Lab in autumn 2021 and tackles this issue head on. Our goal is to work toward a future where litigants and advocates can easily participate in the civil justice system through user-friendly filing tools. In addition, we aim to assist courts and judges by creating more accurate and relevant e-filings, reducing the time and cost associated with returning incorrectly filled-out forms to the sender, and providing judges with the information they need to better adjudicate the matters before them.
These goals motivated two quarters of Policy Lab work. Over the past year, we helped advance an effort that also included Professor David Freeman Engstrom, JD ’02, Lucy Ricca, Jason Solomon, and Todd Venook of the Deborah L. Rhode Center on the Legal Profession; Margaret Hagan, JD ’13, of the Legal Design Lab; and over 20 Stanford students from across the university. Multiple student teams met with dozens of state court representatives, including justices, administrators, and internal technology experts, to better understand key pain points, get buy-in, and identify pathways to change. We cataloged forms from eight jurisdictions to identify extraneous and confusing form fields. By the close of the winter Policy Lab, the team had selected three high-impact focus areas for a pilot project: eviction answers for tenants who have been sued by their landlord; name change petitions for adults looking to change their name; and fee waivers, which may be used in these and other filings. Students and staff also met with representatives from technology providers, including Tyler Technologies, Upsolve, JustFix, and Nolo, and with organizations that are tackling related issues, including Suffolk Law School’s Legal Innovation and Technology (LIT) Lab and LawHelp Interactive. The goal: figure out how we could leverage prior work in the e-filing space and what business model could incentivize values-aligned players (tech providers, courts, legal aid organizations, and litigants) to work together on a multi-jurisdictional project.
The Policy Lab brought together voices from all across Stanford, including undergraduates from multiple disciplines, design students, and law students. The team benefited greatly from being able to collaborate and share perspectives. One of us (Cat) was able to draw on previous experience in human-computer interaction to design a prototype of a consolidated e-filing tool, while another (Mark) leveraged decades of experience in legal process automation and legal department management to help the team stay laser-focused on our ultimate goal: not only to update, digitize, and scale the filing process but also to create a tool that leads to better substantive outcomes for litigants.
We are beyond excited that our research, which began as a hypothesis in September, has sparked enthusiastic collaboration among key stakeholders—litigants, legal aid attorneys, judges, and courthouse staff. The winter 2022 Policy Lab culminated in a convening at SLS. Seventeen court leaders from six jurisdictions across the country, plus representatives from national nonprofits, met at Stanford to identify concrete next steps for a joint pilot effort, share best practices and recent successes, and officially kick off the project with the students and teaching team. And though the Policy Labs have wrapped up, the project is just getting started. In the next few months, we’ll bring together potential tech providers to help develop standards for common form fields, work with litigants and advocates to more deeply understand current pain points in our focus areas, and build on innovations that court partners have tested, often to great success, over the course of the pandemic. SL
Mark Chandler, a lecturer in law and fellow at the Deborah L. Rhode Center on the Legal Profession, co-taught the SLS policy practicum “Unlocking Technology to Promote Access to Justice.” Previously, he served as chief legal officer and chief compliance officer of Cisco Systems. Catherina Yue Xu was a student in the winter ’22 policy practicum. A former product manager at Google, she will be working at the New York State Attorney General’s Bureau of Internet and Technology this summer.