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The legal world’s recent technology boom has highlighted the difference between the haves and the have-nots. While the biggest law firms bring home cratefuls of Blackberries for their attorneys, lawyers at public interest law firms still have to fight to use their office’s one functioning desktop. But at least one public interest group has figured out a way to use technology to help its clients. The Legal Aid Society of Orange County, Calif., this month will unveil its initiative to put court-filing kiosks in the county’s six courthouses and in public libraries. The kiosks allow any individual, regardless of his or her income level, to complete common court filings, free of charge. “We’re out to show that filling out complicated legal documents can be fairly easy,” says Bob Cohen, the society’s executive director. “We think this service will be useful for a significant part of our community.” At least initially, individuals will be able to file four types of legal actions through the kiosks: requests for a restraining order, paternity complaints, small claims suits, and actions of unlawful detainer. Cohen and his colleagues have thought about expanding into other areas, such as bankruptcy and divorce law. But for now, they don’t want to make any waves with the local bar. “We’re not out to take business from private attorneys,” Cohen says. If all goes according to plan, it’ll work like this: Anyone wanting to start an action will simply walk through the instructions provided by each terminal, which will have the feel of an ATM or an airline’s “e-ticket” kiosk. Litigants will answer the most basic questions simply by touching the screen. The rest will be entered into the system via an attached computer keyboard. The society is also working on integrating voice recognition software into the kiosks, so that eventually, you’ll practically be able to bark your way through a filing. After all the information is collected, the plaintiff-to-be will punch a button, and presto, out will come a printed filing. The last step will be to sign the paper and walk it to the clerk’s office. This final task eventually will be unnecessary, too. Orange County has been working with the West Group to set up a countywide e-filing platform. It’s slated to be up and running this fall. Once it’s in place, filings will go automatically from the computer kiosks to the clerk’s office. The kiosks also have phones, which connect directly to Legal Aid staffers. So someone with detailed questions or a substantial problem can get immediate help or set up an appointment with Legal Aid attorneys. Audio and video presentations will also be available. For instance, a woman filing for a restraining order will be able to watch a short video on how to safely manage her way out of an abusive relationship. Anyone is free to use the kiosks. But assistance above and beyond what can be provided by the kiosks will still be reserved for those who meet the society’s income eligibility requirements. Although this butts up against the overall mission of Legal Aid — to provide legal service to low-income individuals — Cohen finds it an acceptable nod to the county’s libraries, which didn’t want the responsibility of screening the kiosk users. “So we’re comparing the kiosks to brochures,” he says. “They’re out there for anyone.” But the kiosks won’t just crank out lawsuits. “Orange County’s software carries a ton of information,” says Richard Zorza, a New York-based technology consultant who assisted with the initiative. “In fact, in some ways, people are given better and more consistent information through the software than they would through individuals.” For instance, once all the software is in place, those who need a social worker or other service will be nudged in that direction. Supporters hope it will lead to more sympathetic rulings from the county’s judiciary. “The program will enhance the information given to Orange County judges,” Zorza says, “which, we hope, will improve the quality of the decisions handed down.” Other counties, including a handful in Washington state, are close to rolling out similar initiatives, but Orange County’s is likely to be the first of its kind in the country. In recent years, other states, such as Utah and Arizona, have piloted similar programs. But they have been scrapped, largely because they failed to recoup their costs, even though clients were charged nominal fees to use the systems. Orange County doesn’t really have to worry about costs. It has received $250,000 in state, federal and private grants for the program (including $20,000 from Orange County’s prized resident, Disneyland). So it’s forced to use a different measuring stick. Says Cohen, “We’ll measure our success by how many people we end up helping.” Few of whom will likely be Blackberry owners.

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