Courts' Use of Self-help Tools Is on the Rise

VOLUME 6 ISSUE 3September 2008
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Courts' Use of Self-help Tools Is on the Rise

A Spanish-speaking person responding to a divorce petition without a lawyer might not expect to have an easy time.  But with the help of an innovative program at the Los Angeles Superior Court, it’s now possible to complete a response in as little as 15 minutes.

The Los Angeles Superior Court is one of an increasing number of courts around the country using online document assembly to assist self-represented litigants.  This growing movement is made possible by Pro Bono Net’s NPADO (National Public Automated Documents Online) initiative.  NPADO is a document assembly project that hosts interactive online forms for the nonprofit legal aid and access-to-justice community, and assembles professional-looking legal documents based on a user’s input.

NPADO lets programs use LexisNexis’s HotDocs Professional, and optionally the Center for Access to Justice and Technology’s A2J Author, to create document assembly content from their existing forms and documents. Templates are uploaded to the NPADO server and linked to from legal aid and court websites. From there, they are made available for advocates, pro bono volunteers, and self-represented litigants.  NPADO receives funding and support from the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) through their Technology Initiative Grant program and a partnership with the State Justice Institute.

NPADO is being used in a variety of ways.  In L.A., online document assembly is one element of a program that also uses JusticeCorps volunteers and staff attorneys to help self-represented litigants fill out necessary legal forms, as well as self-help workshops and clinics that integrate document assembly. 

Already in use in 22 states, NPADO got a boost this spring with the hiring of Claudia Johnson as Court Collaboration Circuit Rider.  She is visiting courts around the country, providing general support and pulling together best practices that will be shared with courts and legal aid organizations.

Claudia went to L.A. this summer to see firsthand the program developed by the California Administrative Office of the Courts as well as meet with program staff including Kathleen Dixon, Managing Attorney for the Self-Help Collaboration Project and Michelle Hopkins, a Family Law attorney at the  Resource Center for Self-Represented Litigants. 

“You can do your own forms directly on a terminal, do your forms by hand, attend a workshop with a group dealing with a similar legal process, or do a more one-on-one clinic with a JusticeCorp volunteer,” Claudia explains.  Nearly 17,000 documents were prepared at the L.A. Superior Court’s Self-Help Center in the first half of 2008.

The workshop for Spanish-speaking divorce respondents, with bilingual volunteers on hand, was one of many Claudia observed during her visit.  “I was very impressed to see how well integrated the flow of a case was to the HotDocs templates,” she said. The staff appreciates the project as well, since it allows them to make better use of their time. 

Claudia has also visited courts in New York and Idaho.  She and Kate Bladow, NPADO Project Coordinator, are seeking other ways to help courts and legal aid organizations get up to speed on document assembly.  In September they spoke at the National Center for State Courts’ Court Solutions Conference and introduced a “court leadership module” that explains online document assembly, shows how to implement and evaluate initiatives, and provides examples of how courts are using document assembly.  This module is available on the site.

Online document assembly within the legal aid community will gain further momentum in the coming year with a new program from LexisNexis and the Legal Services Corporation that will provide HotDocs licenses at no cost to eligible legal aid organizations.  LexisNexis already donates HotDocs licenses to NPADO; under the new initiative, announced in August, legal aid programs funded by LSC and organizations that receive funds through their state Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts programs are eligible to participate in the HotDocs® Software Donation Program.

For more information on NPADO, contact Kate Bladow at or Claudia Johnson at

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