The fast pace of technological change has left the poor and unrepresented behind in many parts of America. But in New York State family courts, Proskauer lawyers are part of an exciting new pilot project spearheaded by the non-profit Legal Information for Families Today (LIFT) which connects people representing themselves in family court with pro bono attorneys over a virtual platform.
LIFT screens the litigants, arranges the virtual meetings, trains the volunteer lawyers, and has experienced staff attorneys available to answer questions and handle any technical issues. The volunteer lawyers don’t need to leave their desks to provide legal advice and information to litigants who can connect from home or any quiet place with a laptop or smart phone. These videoconference sessions address child support, custody, and visitation, and are limited in scope and duration. The representation ends at the end of the virtual session.
The technology supporting LIFT was developed by Pro Bono Net and is versatile and user-friendly. The platform lets users share documents, enables the volunteer lawyer to help fill out forms, houses various resources and guides, and has a live chat feature for immediate assistance from LIFT.
This project fills a huge need: in New York State, 80% of litigants in family court proceedings are unrepresented. These New Yorkers are trying to navigate the legal system as they attempt to secure the safety and security of their families and children, but most of them in this large state do not have access to any form of pro bono assistance. Even those near urban areas like New York City, who may have access to legal clinics, face other barriers to in-person assistance, including the inability to leave work or home, or a lack of transportation.
More than being a convenient solution, this technology promises to revolutionize pro bono legal services in family court. LIFT currently provides legal information to thousands of unrepresented litigants per year through its staff attorneys in New York City, who meet with litigants and speak with them over their hotline. With this technology and its growing partnership with the private sector, LIFT can become a statewide organization without having to expand its physical presence.
I am proud to serve as the Board Chair of LIFT, and am heavily invested in the project’s success. From the perspective of the pro bono attorneys, this platform makes it easy to volunteer, and will hopefully greatly increase their numbers.
Although we embrace the transformative power of technology in so many areas of our personal and professional lives, we have not devoted nearly enough thought and energy to embracing technology as a means of enhancing equal access to justice. Let’s hope this pilot is just the beginning.