The most common way in which people described their actionable civil justice problems is that it's either bad luck or God's will for them. ... If I think something has just happened to me in my life because of forces outside my control, I'm probably not going to go down to the local legal office and ask for legal help with a problem that I don't understand is legal. — Rebecca L. Sandefur
Civil law intersects with almost every aspect of life: work, family, finances, shelter, and more. In many instances, people can and do try to handle civil issues on their own. Often, however, people lack the information needed to resolve problems effectively on their own, and frequently they need the assistance of lawyers or other professionals.
A little over two years ago, the Center for Court Innovation launched Legal Hand, a network of storefront offices where community volunteers provide free legal information and referrals to their neighbors. Legal Hand started with three offices in Brooklyn and Queens; later this year, it will open three more offices in the Bronx and upper Manhattan. The ultimate goal is to empower people in some of New York’s most vulnerable neighborhoods to make more informed decisions about civil justice situations and help them resolve issues before they need lawyers and court intervention.
In this episode of New Thinking, Rob Wolf speaks first with Ignacio Jaureguilorda, director of Legal Hand, about the philosophy and design of the storefront model. Then he speaks with Rebecca L. Sandefur, associate professor of sociology and law at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne, about her research into civil justice issues, including their impact on different communities and the challenges that sometimes makes it difficult to get basic legal information to the people who need it.
This is a transcript of the podcast.
ROBERT V. WOLF: Hi, I'm Rob Wolf of the Center for Court Innovation. And this is our New Thinking podcast. Today we're going talk about civil legal issues. Civil legal issues are something that, I think to the layperson, might be like the forgotten step child of the justice system. When people think of the justice system, the first thing they think of are criminal issues, crimes, and trials, and jail.
But civil legal issues are just as important in a different way. They affect all aspects of our lives. Work, finances, insurance, pensions, wages, benefits. But people often don't realize when a civil issue arises in their life, that it has legal aspects.
Today I'm gonna talk to two people. One is Ignacio Jaureguilorda, who runs a program called Legal Hand that we run here at the Center for Court Innovation. The other person is Rebecca Sandefur who is a professor of law at the University of Illinois.
First, Ignacio is sitting down with me here in my office to talk about Legal Hand, which he directs, and was launched two and a half years ago on the recommendation of the permanent judicial commission on access to justice. Legal Hand is a unique model that brings to several storefronts in New York City tools and information to help and address very common, yet very important civil legal issues. Ignacio, welcome. taking the time to talk with me.
IGNACIO JAUREGUILORDA: Thanks for having me.
WOLF: I wanted to ask you about Legal Hand before I talk to Professor Sandefur to get a sense of practical model that's intended to address civil legal issues in a very productive way. I believe in a preventative way to prevent issues that could end up in court to help resolve them beforehand. So maybe you could explain to me what is Legal Hand and how did it come about.
JAUREGUILORDA: Sure. I'll start with the second part of your question. Legal Hand really came about from the many studies and many years of looking at access to justice issues in New York state. Then Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman created the Permanent Judicial Commission on Access to Justice, which is chaired by Helaine Barnett, and they really looked at the issue of how people were getting legal services in New York State and where there might be gaps in how people access that judicial system.
Really, when we think about the legal system or the judicial system in a civil context, we think about the courts and we might think about legal services providers. But really, that's often the extent of what our knowledge base is or what we know are the resources.
The commission really identified that there was a chance to catch people upstream, if you will, before they became court involved, to try to prevent some of those issues from becoming legal issues.
JAUREGUILORDA: We recruit and train community members in civil legal issues and we ask them to volunteer at our storefront offices so they can help visitors that are coming in with their civil legal issues.
WOLF: What kind of issues do people bring in?
JAUREGUILORDA: Well, they bring in a whole range of issues. I think that folks that have been doing legal services or have been involved with working with low income residents of New York City wouldn't be surprised by the issues that are coming in. The number one issue in New York City is housing. Closely followed by consumer issues, government benefits issues, and family law issues.
WOLF: And you said it's about prevention. So how are these volunteers helping prevent deeper legal involvement? Are they giving legal advice though? Are people expected to be their own lawyers?
JAUREGUILORDA: Well, they're not giving advice because they're not attorneys. So they're not allowed to give advice. What they do is they give information.
I was a civil legal services attorney for nearly 15 years before I came to Legal Hand and I would say that about three quarters of the cold calls that I got from folks did not need an attorney. What they need was information, they needed resources, they needed to be pointed in the right direction, and they needed someone to sit there and listen and help them with that issue. That's what our volunteers do. They provide information, they provide resources, they help folks with applications if that's the need. Really, just a gentle guiding hand in the issue that they come in with.
WOLF: Well, give me an example maybe from housing. You said that was the biggest issue. I know in housing court, probably the biggest issue is the landlords trying to evict people for nonpayment. So how does a Legal Hand office help people pay their rent, for instance? Or is that not the problem people are presenting?
JAUREGUILORDA: Usually, well, some folks absolutely come in with rent issues and they're unable to pay the rent and if that's the situation, we find out if there are any resources available to them that might help them out with their rent. But I'll give you an example of an issue that is preventable, that if not dealt with initially, might become a court involved case. It's one if someone is living in an apartment which is rent stabilized and they don't agree with what the landlord says is their legal rent, there are ways that a tenant can find out what that legal rent is by going to a state agency and finding out what that legal rent is.
Oftentimes, residents and tenants in New York City don't know that that's available to them. What happens is it becomes a dispute with the landlord. They eventually stop paying the rent or stop paying a portion of the rent, and the landlord then begins a nonpayment case in housing court where the tenant then faces eviction.
If we can get folks the knowledge, the information, that these resources exist, this is a way that we can prevent issues from becoming legal issues, from becoming court involved issues.
WOLF: And this is a unique model? We're not gonna find something like this in other cities or communities across the country?
JAUREGUILORDA: Well, I can't speak to every model that exists nationwide, but it's a definitely unique model in New York City, and unique model as far as I know it.
Anecdotally, I can say that as a direct legal services attorney, I saw that the need was vast. That folks did not have the knowledge or the information of how they could deal with a legal issue, how they could deal with these small issues, and then have them and prevent them from becoming bigger issues.
What Dr. Sandafur's work does is quantify that problem and give us some numbers, an idea of how widespread that is.
WOLF: Good. So I will turn to professor [Sandaford 00:14:02] in a minute to talk about some of the research she's done in this area. I know we're about to open three new Legal Hand offices and we already have a few in existence. Could you talk about where they're located and why you chose those locations?
JAUREGUILORDA: Absolutely. In 2015, we opened our first three Legal Hand storefront offices. One in Crown Heights, one in Brownsville, both in Brooklyn, and one in Jamaica, Queens. Now we are expanding to two more storefronts in the Bronx and one storefront by the end of the year in upper Manhattan. We chose those neighborhoods in New York City because traditionally, they have been neighborhoods that have had a large gap in access to justice. And especially in civil legal issues, which I think are often overlooked.
WOLF: And you say they're volunteer run. So how do you train volunteers to address this potentially vast aray of questions that someone could bring that qualifies as a civil legal issue?
JAUREGUILORDA: So the model, the Legal Hand model has, as our collaborators and our partners, actual attorneys from civil legal organizations. So we have attorneys that are there, not to take on cases from visitors that are coming in, but to support the volunteers in the work that they're doing. They are essential in the training of the volunteers as they come in.
Our volunteers come from a wide range of folks. We have a lot of retired professionals that want to help out. We have a lot of working professionals. We have a lot of young people that want to dabble in civil legal issues and see if that's something that they would like to pursue. All of them come with different knowledge and all of them come with different experiences and a different baseline of what they know. And we try to train them on some of the bigger issues that we're seeing.
JAUREGUILORDA: When we talk about legal empowerment for the communities that we're in, we're not only talking about legal empowerment for the visitors that are coming in, but we're also talking about empowerment for our volunteers who are community members. So we offer a wide range of trainings and workshops throughout their volunteer tenure to help them grow and keep learning and become more knowledgeable about the issues that they're seeing.
WOLF: And to play devil's advocate here, is it possible that someone would say you're putting a bandaid on a problem? That the people with money can hire an attorney to solve all their problems and people who are underserved and don't have access or can't afford an attorney are gonna have to figure it out themselves, but we're gonna give them a little bit of help, and so in the end, they're not getting the same, perhaps, result as someone with money?
JAUREGUILORDA: I would say that no. What we're doing is we're trying to prevent these issues from becoming legal issues so that they don't even need an attorney. There are attorney resources available for folks that are low income, and especially in New York City, we now have universal access to folks, to tenants in housing court who are facing eviction. And those are all great things.
Legal Hand and our model is a different entry point, if you will, into the judicial system. We're trying to catch people a little bit more upstream, get people the help and the information that they need, and hopefully this also works to alleviate some of the congestion in courts that we see and also to alleviate some of the demand on our legal services resources.
WOLF: Well, thank you so much, Ignacio. I appreciate you sharing what you guys are doing at Legal Hand and talking about civil legal issues on the ground, as they're affecting New Yorkers.
JAUREGUILORDA: Thanks for having me. It's been a great conversation.
WOLF: And now I'll be speaking with Professor Rebecca [Sandaford 00:20:09] to get a national perspective and perhaps a little more academic perspective on civil legal issues.
WOLF: Professor Rebecca L. Sandefur is associate professor of sociology and law at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne. She is also a faculty fellow at the American Bar Foundation where she founded and leads the foundations Access to Justice research initiative. Her current research draws on the community needs, and services study, which measures ordinary people's experiences with civil justice problems, and the resources available to assist them in handling those problems. Professor Sandefur, welcome to The New Thinking Podcast.
REBECCA L. SANDEFUR: Thank you. It's great to be with you.
WOLF: I just spoke with my colleague Ignacio [inaudible 00:04:22] about civil legal issues in New York City, and Legal Hand, which is a program that offers information to visitors from volunteers through storefront sites. But I thought, "Now, we're going to pull back, and take a national perspective." Maybe the best way to start would be simply by defining terms. When we're talking about civil legal issues, what are we talking about?
SANDEFUR: I'll give you the abstract answer, and then some examples. These are problems that emerge in your everyday life that are institutionalized in the civil law as actionable by somebody who is involved in that problem. You won't usually, and I won't usually. When it happens to us, think about it that way. For instance, we might have a job and we're supposed to be paid overtime when we're not getting the overtime. That's a violation of wage in our laws, but we're probably going to think about it as our employer is a jerk. Or somebody who is disorganized or however we might evaluate that behavior. Or you might be in a situation where you're paying some kind of service provider. It could be cell phone, it could be utility, it could be somebody who's repairing something on your house, and you think that person or organize hasn't done what they owe you, and there are laws of contracts and so on that govern that.
It turns out if you think about your daily life, an enormous proportion of the ordinary stuff that we do of our family relationships, of our work relations, of our relationships buying and selling things is governed by some kind of civil law. Laws of contract or different kinds of rights that we might have, so that lots and lots of regular stuff turns out to be a civil justice problem.
WOLF: Let me ask you what your background is and how you got interested in looking closely at these issues?
SANDEFUR: I'm an academic sociologist. I'm a college professor, and my main interest as a sociologist is in the study of inequality. I wrote my dissertation on attorneys, and I was looking at inequality among the labor market for attorneys, and who had access to being an attorney and so on. As I was working on that project, it occurred to me that we in our country have a very interesting justice system that works like this. If you live here, and then you pay taxes you've already paid for the courthouses, and you've already salaried the judges, and you've already elected legislators and paid their salaries, and set up offices for them to write laws.
You've already created and paid for a public justice system. But if you want to use it, usually in order to use it effectively you have to go to a third part private occupation, which is the bar, and pay them money to use your public justice system. I thought that was really interesting. We don't make people do that with public schools. They don't have to purchase special educational consultants that must accompany their children whenever their children go to class or all their meetings. They can purchase those things if they want to, but we don't really set up schools so that you need all that extra expertise.
I begin to think about how does that structure that we've created shape people's ability to access their own justice system, and resolve the problems that their own democratic process has made actionable underneath that system. That's how I got into being really curious about how ordinary people think about, understand, and experience this wide range of problems that all of us will have over the course of our lives.
WOLF: Am I correct after reading some of your writing, and some of the studies you've done, and you also mentioned that you were drawn into studies of inequality of something that interested you, that the people most affected from civil justice situations tend to be, although it does occur across the population, and you have written at that the weight of it does not fall equally? Is that partly because people who are disadvantaged in some way, poor perhaps, they can't afford an attorney?
SANDEFUR: That's certainly true. We have studies where you develop a big long list of problems that are civil justice problems, but you describe them in the ways ordinary people experience in. My employer owes me overtime, and he's not paying or he keeps sending me this bill, and I've already paid it, but they keep sending, keep sending, keep sending or you could be on different sides of the dispute. I'm two or more months behind on my rent, so then my justice problem is I'm at risk of eviction. If you do surveys like that of people in the United States, you see that somewhere between depending if you're looking at half and almost 80% of adults will have had a justice problem in the last year or 18 months.
But the risk of having a justice problem is higher for groups that are ... Particularly for poor people, but for other kinds of groups that are disadvantaged in society. That's the first thing. You're at higher risk of having a problem to begin with. Then certainly because we give access to that third party occupation that lets you use the justice system through markets for the most part, and lawyers are quite expensive, and many people are priced out of the legal services market. In the United States, most people are familiar with criminal legal aid. If you are poor or don't have enough money, and you're accused of a particular set of crimes, the government will appoint a lawyer for you, and the government will bear the cost of that.
There's no such right on the civil side. But there is a small group of attorneys who provide legal services to low income people for civil justice problems. But that's say 6000 or 7000 attorneys for say 54 million people. There's a big gap between available services either on the market or through these other sources, and the huge population of people who run into these problems. It could benefit from some kind of advice or expertise or assistance with their justice problems.
WOLF: How do you get a handle on the scope of the need? I know one tool you've drawn on is the community needs and services study. Can you say what that is, and talk about some of the interesting things you've learned from it?
SANDEFUR: Sure. The community needs and services study is a door to door survey, it was in a middle sized city in the middle part of the country. A very, very typical kind of place. It's a representative sample of adults in the community. You take a representative of households, and then you go to the household, and you ask who lives there, and then you randomly select an adult, and then you keep going back until you can find that person at home and they're wiling to talk to you for 45 to 90 minutes, because that's how long these survey interviews ran. Then the first thing we asked them was, "Here's a big long list of these different kinds of situations that people run into. They could involve family issues, they could involve employment, they could involve housing, they could involve healthcare, they could involve pensions, they could involve insurance. Have you had any of these problems in the last 18 months?"
Then once people say, "Yes. I've had a problem." Then you start to try to tease out the life history of that problem. When did it emerge, and who did they go to for assistance, and what were the consequences of that problem for them? Did it affect their health? Did they lose money? Did they feel less confidence because of the problem? That kind of thing. It's a particular model of learning about civil justice that is used around the world.
In my study, in my community we found that two-thirds of adults had at least one justice problem. Some people had up to 14. In the Legal Services Corporation study you have about 80-
WOLF: Just to clarify. At that moment when you surveyed them or within a certain period of time?
SANDEFUR: Within the 18 months prior to the survey.
SANDEFUR: If you have 14, that's a pretty intractable situation, and you probably have them when we're talking to you. To give an example of that kind of clustering, which you also see in the study, specifically of the US low income population. If I lost my job, then I would probably try to apply for unemployment benefits. That's a civil justice issue. I might need advice with that. Now, I don't have a source of income. I'm going to get behind perhaps on my rent or my car payment or other kinds of bills. Now, I'm in a debt and an eviction situation. This kinds of big changes in life can precipitate conflict in personal relationships, so now maybe my spouse or my partners is going to leave me, or I can't take care of my kids.
You can see how one problem if it catches somebody who's at the edge care really cascade into a big bundle of trouble that people then have to deal with, and most of the parts of that trouble will have different civil legal aspects to it.
WOLF: With two-thirds of up to 80% of people facing some sort of civil justice situation in the last 18 months, does that necessarily mean that all of them could have benefited from support or even a lawyer because I did see in one of your papers that 46% of people reported trying to solve the problem themselves. From my own experience with some of the things you described although none of them so severe, but for instance having problems with the health insurance claim. That's something I solve myself. I called repeatedly in one instance. I even wrote a letter to the governor.
SANDEFUR: Good for you.
WOLF: I'm not maybe the average person. I'm someone perhaps with resources, and education. But in my case, for instance, if I had said, "Yes. I had a civil justice legal issue, and I did it myself." It doesn't mean that there's a gap necessarily. What do you make of those numbers? Where's the actual gap for people in terms of being able to get the support they do need? Because of course in some situations do call for professionals, do call for lawyers or some other kind of professional advice.
SANDEFUR: No one has a good measure that can answer the question that you're asking precisely. But the example you've just given about your own experience really nicely illustrates a range of things about these problems. You're absolutely right that there's a chunk of them that people can resolve just fine on their own. They can find the information that they need. They can take the actions that are available to them, and they can get a good or at least a fair result out of the problem. Then there's another chunk of these problems where maybe somebody needs some advice because the problem is complicated or maybe they don't have the life experience or the connections that would make them understand how the institutions work or who you should complain to, and that's where you have now developing in the US all kinds of different sorts of services where people who are not lawyers assist people have justice problems in figuring out what kind of problem they have, and what their options for action are.
And Legal Hand is an example of one of these kinds of interventions that tries to empower local communities to understand, and take action on their own justice problems. And then there are collateral benefits from these kinds of models or at least we hope, which is that the whole community becomes more organized, and more aware of its rights and so on. Then there's certainly a group of problems that are complicated enough that you need somebody who's been to three years of law school, and passed the bar exam to help you handle it.
Right now our scientific knowledge is not such that we can tell you what that number is, but it's less than 80% for sure or two-thirds for sure.
WOLF: Now that you mentioned Legal Hand, what do you think the possibilities are for community empowerment models like Legal Hand to reduce the need for court intervention? When I was speaking with Ignacio, he was talking about it as a preventative model that if you can catch problems early enough or upstream that you can help people resolve something before it grows bigger, and bigger, and cascades into something that does in fact require a lawyer and a court to resolve.
SANDEFUR: I'm going to talk about potential first, and then I'm going to talk about what I see is the main challenge second. I think there's actually tremendous potential here because these interventions that are community based or they catch you before you end up in court are usually through trusted intermediaries, there are places that you can go and tell your story in the form of a story. You don't have to formulate it into a legal argument, and somebody who has some understanding of the options of folks like you and your situation can give you some insight into what your choices might be. I'll give you an example for eviction.
Most eviction filings as far as we know are typically for non-payment of rent. The landlord says, "You owe me X amount of dollars, and if you don't pay it you're out." One reason that people don't pay rent of course is that they don't have money, but there are often situations where people may be eligible for different kinds of benefits or there's a voucher that's supposed to be paid that hasn't be paid, and that's why their landlord says they own this money.
Being able to get that understanding early that, "Wow, in fact I could be getting this extra $200 a month, and that would let me make my rent every time." Before you end up in a situation where you're three or four months behind prevents not just your personal problem, but landlords don't want to advertise your apartment again, and churn all this stuff. That's a cost to them. Communities would like to have people living there in a stable way, and we know that frequent moving and eviction has all kinds of negative consequences for kids who are moving schools, for people's health, for their mental health. By getting it early on a problem like that, and connecting people say to a disability benefit that they're eligible for, but they don't know about you can prevent all of these costs not just to the people directly involved in the problem, but to the broader communities that they live in, and frankly to the court system.
That's the potential. I think the challenge is getting a lot of people to adopt these services and use them, or to take the opportunities. First of all, you have to develop the opportunities, but to get a lot of uptake, to scale these solutions so that they can assist many people. One of our biggest challenges right now is I observe this activity around the country is most people who have justice problems don't think about them as justice problems. When the community needs a services study, people said, "My employer is not paying me overtime." Or, "I'm three months behind in my mortgage." Or, "I think I'm going to have to file for bankruptcy." Whatever their justice problem was.
We asked them, "What kind of problem is this? Is it a moral problem? Is it a personal problem? Is it a social problem? Is it a legal problem? Is it bad luck? Is it God's will for you?" Actually the most common way in which people described their actionable civil justice problems is it's either bad luck or God's will for them. It's stuff that just happens in life because of forces outside your control. If I think something has just happened to me in my life because of forces outside my control, I'm probably not going to go down to the local legal office and ask for legal help with a problem that I don't understand is legal.
SANDEFUR: Thinking about how to connect with people around the problems that experience as they experience them, I think is a big next step for making these kinds of models as effective as they can be in the communities where they've been launched.
WOLF: How do you address something like someone feeling like maybe it's their fault that something happened when it really wasn't their fault, and that they do have rights in this area, and they should do something about it? That's one question, but then my other thought is if someone trips on a sidewalk in New York, they could sue the city and get some money I think. I think people do that routinely. But to me that seems kind of silly. Unless it's an egregious whatever. It was jack hammering the sidewalk, and they didn't put up warning signs. But if it's just an aging sidewalk where there was a crack in it, to me, and you might say, "That's wrong, and it's their right, and they should go after it." It gets to that point where people start saying, "Aren't we just being a little litigious? And every play ground doesn't need to be padded to a point that a child can't get a scratch?"
SANDEFUR: I think I would make two observations in response, and I have noticed a lot of padded playgrounds in New York City by the way. I would observe that, going back to this question about inequality, rich people pay lawyers to tell them not to do things all the time. They get advice, they go in and they say, "This other company is annoying me, and I want to sue them." And the lawyer says, "I don't think it's worth it. You don't have a case." Or, "It's going to create all these other consequences and you don't want to do it."
The inequality question is in a world where so much of our activity is governed by these complex rules, should everybody have access to some advice about what those rules are and how they affect them? That's not necessarily filing a lawsuit, but it's getting someone who can explain to you your options. Part of that, to move to your question about let's say somebody is, for instance, around bankruptcy. There's enormous shame in the United States, so people wait to file for bankruptcy until they're in much more dire straits than they would have been if they were less ashamed for example.
I think what you can explain to people is two things. One is you feel like this is your problem, which it is, but you're one of I don't know 17 million people facing this problem for example. You're not alone, you're not unique. Then actually there are choices that you have, and maybe taking legal action given what you want is a bad choice, but you should get to know what your choice, and your options, and your rights are so that you can make a reasonable decision as an autonomous person under this legal system that we live under.
The other point I would make, there's a story about the United States that it's very litigious, that we file more lawsuits than anyone in the world, which is not in fact true. The story about litigiousness comes from stories about slip and falls that you get the example of, or the famous McDonald's coffee spill in your lap when you're sitting in the drive through. Or different kinds of malpractice claims against doctors for different sorts of medical errors. Those are actually fairly rare in the scope of ordinary people civil justice activity.
As far as we know, and again we don't have the best data in the world on this, maybe 11% to 14% of justice problems ever become court cases, and most ordinary people go into for one of two reasons. One is they're getting divorced. We've decided that as a society that you can get married on your own whenever you want to. But if you want out of that you very often have to go through a court. You see a lot of family cases, and child support, and the renegotiation of visitation and stuff like that.
But the other reason that ordinary people end up in court is the result of someone else's legal action. They're being evicted, they're being foreclosed on, they're being sued for credit card debt or other kinds of debt that they have. But you don't actually see a lot of ordinary people filing lots and lots of lawsuits about all these problems that they have.
SANDEFUR: But a lot of times what we want is for people to understand what their options are, and sometimes you need an attorney to explain that to you because sometimes it's really complicated. But sometimes somebody who is not an attorney, but has some training in the kind of problem that you have or in the kind of situation that you're describing can be really, really helpful and helping you understand that you're not the only person who has this problem, that you have certain rights, but also responsibilities in this situation, and that you have options. That's a very empowering, I think, position to be in to realize that you actually have some choices that you can make here even though none of them may be exactly what you want.
WOLF: In the few minutes we have left, I wondered if there are other models? We've talked about Legal Hand. Are there other models that are bridging the information gap, the knowledge gap about civil justice situations for the public?
SANDEFUR: There are lots of different models. One of the things that's important about Legal Hand is it's located outside of the court system, and people have access to it before something becomes a court case. They're called self-help resources available in courts around the country to assist people who don't have lawyers, and handling the court cases that they found themselves in. Out in the community, you have some organizations like Legal Hand. You have a global movement to create different kinds of community based paralegal. These are folks who have some degree of training who could assist you in establishing a land claim for example, and there's some of that in the United States although we have a very highly regulated legal services market. It ends up being highly regulated, but around the world regulation is done in different ways, so there's more space for these kinds of models to develop.
The other thing you see is a whole range of technological tools that are meant to connect people with solutions to problems, or ways to understand their rights. One of them that exists in New York City is a tool called Just Fix, and you can it on your phone or you can visit it on the web, and it allows you to identify conditions, housing code violations in your apartment, to assemble pictures from your phone of the mold in your bathroom or the rats in the basement or whatever it might be, and then using a structured interview kind of interface writes a letter that says, "Dear landlord, I’m letting you know that there are these problems, and appendices A through K provide the photographic evidence. Could you please fix it?"
They're a range of both technological, and human models that use people who are not lawyers or tools who are not lawyers to give people a greater understanding, and ability to act on their rights around the country. One of the biggest breaks on these tools right now is the way that legal practices organized in the US. In many countries, lawyers have a monopoly on appearing in court and making court arguments. In the United States, lawyers additionally in most instances have a monopoly on giving legal advice. These different tools whether they're people or computers are technically not allowed to tell you that you probably ought to do X in this situation. What they are allowed to do is give you information about what the possible routes to solution are.
These kinds of services can, I think, be much more impactful if we could relax that restriction on advice a little bit because there's a range of situations where I think a trained person or a good computer tool that isn't an attorney can give somebody pretty good advice, or can take them to a point where they say, "You know what? Your problem is more complex than we can handle. You really need to go talk to a lawyer." But right now the regulatory regime on what things that are not lawyers can do is really very restrictive.
WOLF: And is there an effort to change the laws in that area?
SANDEFUR: There are two different kinds of efforts. There are providers like Legal Zen and Rocket Lawyer that do what are called unbundled legal services, and they want to sell them across state lines. That presses against some of the way that legal services are regulated on the commercial side. And then there are various efforts on the non-profit side to say they should at least be non-profit carve-outs for tools or humans that are not lawyers to provide a little part of what lawyers are traditionally provided.
In Canada and many provinces, that carve out is formal. As long as you're not charging for the provision of legal advice, and you're doing it as part of working in an appropriate sort of non-profit organization, you're allowed to do it. There are places in the US where that happens certainly, but officially in most places it's not supposed to. But there is an effort to create these non-profit carve outs.
WOLF: Thank you so much for talking to me today, and coming on New Thinking.
SANDEFUR: Oh it's my pleasure.
WOLF: I've been speaking with Rebecca L. Sandefur. She's an associate professor of sociology and law at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champagne, and she's also a faculty fellow at the American Bar Foundation where she founded and leads the foundation's Access to Justice Research Initiative. For more information about Legal Hand or the Center For Court Innovation, please visit our website at www.CourtInnovation.com. Our theme music is by Michael Aaron of QuiverNYC.org, and I've been filling for Matthew Watkins who is on vacation and our usual host. I'm Rob Wolf and thanks for listening.