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Technology Summit Spurs Ideas for Expanding Access to Justice

Thursday, September 13, 2012

LSC convened the 2012 Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice on June 21-22 in Silver Spring, Md.  Nearly 50 participants – including technology experts, academics, private practitioners, representatives of legal services programs, courts, and governmental and business entities – were invited to explore the potential of technology to move the United States toward providing service of some form to all with a legal need. 

This gathering, the first of two planned in 2012, focused on development of ideas.  A follow-up, tentatively planned for the fall, will focus on implementation.  Fourteen white papers were produced in advance of the summit and were used to focus the discussion.  Seven were published online in the Fall 2012 issue of the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology.

LSC President James J. Sandman challenged the group to “think big” in considering how technology might be used to make the legal process more accessible to clients, how to “get the biggest bang for our buck,” and how to maximize communication and cooperation among everyone in the equal justice community.

Although the number of Americans living in poverty is at an all-time high and funding (in inflation-adjusted dollars) for legal aid is at an all-time low, Sandman was optimistic about the potential impact of the summit.

“I am convinced that this gathering is going to make the difference,” he said in his opening remarks. “My hope, my certainty, is that in just a few years all of you are going to look back on your participation in this conference as one of the things you are proudest of.”

In addition to meeting in small working groups, participants heard from three speakers: Chief Judge Eric T. Washington of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals and President of the Conference of Chief Justices; Marc Pierson, MD, Regional Vice President, Quality and Clinical Information at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Wash.; and United States Chief Technology Officer Todd Park. 

Washington emphasized collaboration among the courts, the bar, private attorneys and legal aid programs. “We are in this together,” he said. 

Pierson shared his experiences in employing both technology and the ideas of patients to improve access to health care among low-income populations in Washington State.  “Technology by itself is irrelevant. It is technology combined with sociology that makes a difference,” he said. “Know your customers – listen to them. They have good ideas, and aren’t’ limited in the ways you are.”

Park encouraged the legal aid community to “think about what data you have that people can actually use,” and then invite developers to brainstorm about what might be done with it.

He explained that the Department of Health and Human Services promotes innovative use of federal health data by holding intense technology development sessions, called “hack-a-thons” or “code-a-thons.” At these sessions, technology engineers learn about health care issues and the data sets that are available, and then design technology to improve individual and community health. 

For each of the past three years, the best new technologies using health data from government and other sources have been showcased at a national Health Datapalooza where innovators present their technologies to the audience, describing how it uses health data and makes a meaningful impact on health. Park offered his experience and assistance to the legal services community to organize similar events to improve access to justice.

Read more about the summit on Richard Zorza's Access to Justice Blog.