The Minnesota Legal Services Coalition (MLSC) has been awarded the Law Technology News (LTN) Innovation Award for Pro Bono, in recognition of an online expungement tool it developed. The awards, which recognize outstanding achievement in the legal technology community, were presented January 30 during LegalTech.
The Start-to-Finish Expungement Tool is an online resource that lets pro bono attorneys with no prior expungement experience help their clients remove barriers to employment and housing. In Minnesota, all encounters with the criminal justice system, including brief encounters with police, minor charges, and decades-old convictions, generate publicly accessible records. Because the records do not disappear with time, they haunt hundreds of thousands of job applicants, apartment seekers, and young professionals in the state – and continue to do so unless legal steps are taken to have those records expunged.
The majority of those who need an expungement can’t afford a lawyer and end up in court alone, facing an exceedingly complicated process. MLSC and its partners decided to use technology to address this problem. Working with the Volunteer Lawyers Network (VLN) and the Council on Crime and Justice, both Minneapolis-based nonprofits, they created a tool that effectively automates the process.
“These are challenging times for the provision of legal assistance to the disadvantaged, and LTN’s recognition of this project emphasizes the profound value of innovation and collaboration,” said John Freeman, Supervising Attorney at MLSC. “We’re honored that LTN has taken note of our attempt to work together, using technology as
a tool to recruit allies in our struggle to meet human needs of our client community. Together, we can accomplish so much.”
The Start-to-Finish Expungement Tool guides pro bono attorneys through a series of simple questions, such as the outcome of an arrest and in which of the state’s 87 counties the criminal record resides. The tool helps the attorneys determine their clients’ best legal avenue for expungement, based on state laws and court decisions. The tool then uses HotDocs software to draft and print a set of pleadings and letters tailored to suit each client’s criminal record. The tool was built using A2J Author(R) software, and is hosted on LawHelp Interactive, the national online document assembly system run by Pro Bono Net.
The final version of the tool was launched in April 2011, and by year-end more than 360 Expungement Pleadings had been successfully completed using it.
By simplifying an intimidating process, the Start-to-Finish Expungement Tool opens new opportunities for pro bono work. VLN uses it for pro bono expungement workshops or clinics for law firms and corporate legal departments seeking limited-scope engagements. Dorsey & Whitney, for example, hosts a monthly expungement workshop in partnership with Xcel Energy at which three or four clients identified by legal services organizations as good candidates for expungement receive assistance from a pro bono attorney.
In addition to its use in workshops and clinics, the Tool is accessible on ProJusticeMN, Minnesota’s statewide website for pro bono and legal aid attorneys, which is collaboratively managed by MLSC and the Minnesota State Bar Association. The fact that it’s available online means it can be used to help meet the needs of those in rural areas, and in fact the Council on Crime and Justice uses the tool to train volunteer attorneys outside the Twin Cities area. A pro bono attorney working on a case can use the system to remotely share the completed document with an expert for review.
According to John, there has been interest in replication of the Start-to-Finish Expungement tool in other states, following presentations during statewide trainings and at the National Legal Aid & Defender Association’s 2010 annual conference. Because LawHelp Interactive is a national platform, replication of successful online forms is made easier.
“The impact on our client communities of criminal records in not unique to Minnesota,” said John, “and we certainly hope other pro bono and legal services projects will utilize and build upon what we’ve started.”