The Legal Aid Society of Orange County, based in Santa Ana, Calif., among its many services provides legal and tax services to low income residents. LASOC programs are designed to offer civil legal support to individuals of modest means, as defined by federal law. The legal aid services are typically provided in family law areas, bankruptcy, child support, civil harassment, divorce, guardianship, name changes, and tax.
Like other programs funded by the Legal Services Corp., LASOC is faced with resource challenges including enough trained volunteers and staff so it is difficult to provide high levels of civil legal aid to the many low-income residents who qualify for it. Prioritizing legal services is a continuing issue that needs to be resolved to make optimal use staff resources.
In 2000, LASOC designed a technology program with an aim to give the local community access to technology that would help them solve legal problems on their own. The biggest dilemma the Society faced was that many government agencies offered online services, but many low-income residents of Orange County were not comfortable using technology. To address the problem, the society needed software that prompted users through a question-and-answer process in three languages: English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. The application needed to input numerical data and text responses to a server-based program, which then created a customized set of legal documents in English, along with instructions on what to do with them in the user's native language.
Part of the challenge was mapping each user's interview data to court forms. Like many courts, California heavily relies on forms and many legal matters require lots of paperwork. For example, in a typical domestic violence matter, there may be 30 pages of documents to respond to; other matters, such as property issues, child support, custody support, and temporary orders, can require even more. LASOC staff previously had to create all such paperwork manually, based on personal interviews with the clients. To do so, LASOC staff handed people documents and asked them to fill them out neatly in pen and return them to the office. Staff reviewed the documents and then the person usually had to attend a court hearing to resolve their legal problem, such as getting a restraining order. The process could be intimidating and often discouraging.
SOLVING THE PUZZLE
LASOC instantiated its service by using the activePDF Toolkit from Mission Viejo, Calif.-based activePDF Inc. The activePDF Toolkit software can generate a new PDF form on-the-fly to meet specific needs, or manipulate an existing form for a new need. It can map input to mandatory California state legal forms as well as extract data from the forms. It can merge multiple PDFs into a single document to provide backup documentation and provide the versatility to handle most legal pleading requirements.
The Toolkit software is server-based, so all forms reside on LASOC's servers and can be customized from any PC on the local network. In addition, users can access the application without having a standalone copy of PDF software installed on the local PC. Because the application resides on a central server, the one location for system management and maintenance makes it easy for LASOC staff to support.
LASOC began developing activePDF Toolkit in 1999, taking approximately one year to prototype and build its first set of templates. Today it takes approximately six weeks to generate a new template. The time frame is critical because the State of California generally updates its mandatory forms every two years.
With additional licenses from activePDF, LASOC began offering its PDF creation and editing tools to other governmental agencies in California and to agencies in other states. To accomplish this the society developed an internet-based service using activePDF's Portal product The portal software gave users the ability to view, create, fill, edit, save, and download the proper PDF forms to respond to the legal needs according to their state residence all from within a standard web browser.
The Portal product worked so well that the Society formed a partnership with LegalGenie Inc., a Delaware corporation, to provide civil legal services to low income individuals and seniors. Legal Genie uses activePDF technology to assemble court pleadings for pro per litigants in California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetss, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Virginia. LASOC profits are used to fund continuing development of its activePDF system.