Waving the FLAG for Access to Justice
Celia Ampel, Daily Business Review
October 25, 2016
If you’re going through a legal problem and don’t know where to turn for help, Google is likely to overwhelm you.
“You have no idea what information is good information,” said Joyce Raby, executive director of the Florida Justice Technology Center. “Making those kinds of determinations can be daunting and overwhelming, especially in a stressful situation like eviction or divorce.”
That’s why the nonprofit center created the Florida Legal Access Gateway, or FLAG, an online portal that directs Floridians to free or low-cost legal resources. The portal launched Oct. 20 as a pilot project serving only Clay County with a goal of expanding statewide next year.
FLAG was the brainchild of the Florida Commission on Access to Civil Justice, which aims to help low- to moderate-income Floridians facing common legal issues such as divorce, custody battles, wills and landlord-tenant disputes. The commission recently became permanent after nearly two years of work under Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Jorge Labarga.
“One of the issues we’re looking at very closely is how to harness technology to provide legal services to our citizens who need it,” Florida Bar President Bill Schifino said. “How do we bridge that connectivity gap? How do we reach those rural markets where citizens might not know who to call?”
FLAG was designed to do just that, building on a Pew Research Center report that found 87 percent of American adults with a household income of less than $30,000 per year use the internet.
Anyone visiting the Clay County Clerk’s Office website can find the portal on the homepage. Users can answer simple questions about a divorce or eviction — “Have you or your spouse lived in Florida for six months before today?” — without providing any identifying information.
FLAG then directs users to the most appropriate resources, such as free or low-cost Jacksonville-area legal aid programs or online forms they can fill out on their own.
The planned statewide portal would connect people with a variety of organizations, including legal aid agencies, county clerk’s offices, law school clinics, law libraries, Florida’s Elder Law Hotline and the Florida Bar lawyer referral service. The project is funded by the Florida Bar Foundation with proceeds from the attorney general’s office from the Citizens United settlement.
The Florida Justice Technology Center has been testing the portal in Clay County with visitors to the public defender’s office, clerk’s office, legal aid societies and public library. After the pilot project ends Nov. 30, the center will report the results to the commission, laying the groundwork for a statewide FLAG that addresses a wide swath of legal issues.
While the portal does not collect users’ names, addresses or contact information, each user is assigned a referral ID. That number will carry over to the clerk’s office, courts and any legal aid programs used so the technology center can get “a 360-degree picture of what an individual’s experience is like,” Raby said.
That feedback will be instrumental not only to improving the portal but also to making real social change, she said.
FLAG was inspired by a similar system in New Mexico, which connects users to two legal aid organizations. When that system’s creators noticed a spike in evictions in two New Mexico towns, they were able to dig into the data and learn that the problem was linked to car loans, Raby said.
Because of a bad actor in the dealership industry, people were taking out car loans with exorbitant interest rates, and eventually their finances spiraled out of control, and they lost their cars and homes.
Raby believes FLAG could also help pin down the problems affecting low-income Floridians.
“If we don’t start looking at interactions between those kinds of circumstances, we’re probably never going to really address the justice gap,” she said.