Deconstructing Access to Justice, Part Three: The Many Instances When a Lawyer Is Not or Should Not Be Necessary

When it comes to access to justice, lawyers will aways have a critical role to play, and that was the focus of my 2024 Resolution for the Profession that was the prelude to this series. But that is not true for every legal issue people face, or for every aspect of the more significant legal matters where lawyers are so important.

So, for this month’s stop on the road to access to justice, I want to take a closer look at the types of legal issues where two other interventions–AI and other self-help technologies and assistance from other legal professionals –have the realistic potential to be effective solutions for people in need. While both of these interventions have huge potential to improve access while working in collaboration with lawyers (more on that next month), for this post I want to focus on the legal issues where they can be a fair and effective option on the access to justice continuum without the involvement of a lawyer.

Advocates for these interventions often wildly overstate their potential to improve access to justice as freestanding solutions; when the stakes are high and unequal power dynamics are at play, they are no substitute for a good lawyer. However, if we just focus on the many types of legal issues people face every day that don’t involve those kinds of stakes, these interventions have tremendous untapped potential to improve access to justice for people who never realistically will get—or should need—a lawyer to resolve their issue.  

Defining Access to Justice: The Critical Starting Point

In each chapter of this series, I am starting with our CBF definition of access to justice, as it is the fundamental starting point for determining what people need.

Everyone facing a legal issue (1) has timely and affordable access to the level of legal help necessary for them to get a fair and efficient outcome on the merits of their legal issue, and (2) objectively can believe they were treated fairly in the process.

As this definition makes clear, getting the right result on the merits of their legal issue is necessary for someone to receive justice. But when the stakes are higher it matters just as much how that result is delivered, or procedural justice. As a result, access to the right level of legal help is crucial on both fronts.

Starting with the Problem We are Trying to Solve

In assessing the right level of legal help that is necessary, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. It depends on the legal issue involved, its impact on the person involved, and related dynamics.

This chart from last year’s post is a bit simplistic but gives a framework for assessing where these three interventions that are the focus of this post fit here.

The lower left quadrant—lower stakes and low complexity—is the obvious place to start. These interventions also have tremendous potential in that lower right quadrant of lower stakes and higher complexity by helping people to effectively navigate otherwise unwieldy systems on their own.

Artificial Intelligence and Other Self-Help Technologies

As is true for so many aspects of today’s world, AI is where most of the hype is right now on access to justice–even the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court is talking about it. And if deployed strategically with appropriate safeguards, there is great potential indeed.

Examples of where AI can be an effective freestanding solution include:

  • Chatbots like Rentervention that help people understand and assert their legal rights before they become more complex legal problems.  
  • Products like TurboTax that enable people to handle simpler and lower stakes legal issues from start to finish.  
  • With the caveat that it often pushes or exceeds the limit of what is appropriate, DoNotPay is an example of a tool that can enable people to navigate administrative proceedings like parking ticket disputes.
  • Court chatbots that help people navigate the procedural aspects of what are otherwise simpler or lower stakes matters (or aspects of their case) and enable them to handle those issues on their own.  

These are just a few broad examples of AI already improving access as a self-help tool that have great potential to be scaled up to meet people’s needs on the lower end of our stakes/complexity framework. These solutions are most effective when they are integrated with and can directly connect people to further legal help when their issues become more complex, as Rentervention and TurboTax already do.  

Other Legal Professionals

When I go to get a flu shot, go to physical therapy, or get a routine dental cleaning, I don’t normally see or have any need to see a doctor or dentist. I see other very qualified professionals—a pharmacist, physical therapist, and dental assistant—and in most instances don’t need to go through my doctor or dentist to do so.

There are so many equivalent situations in the legal system, but with rare exceptions, we don’t make it easy for everyday people to get help from other legal professionals who could help them navigate those lower stakes issues where lawyers are not necessary or realistically accessible to them.

There are some notable examples of where our legal system has opened those doors and are making a big difference, including:

This again is no replacement for lawyers in the more complex and higher stakes issues, but has far more potential as a solution on the access to justice continuum for the many other legal issues people encounter.

Paving the Way for the Next Stop on the Road to Access

AI and other legal professionals already are making a big impact on access to justice and have far more potential if we strategically incorporate them for the many issues lawyers are not necessary for people to get a fair shake.

While these interventions are not a solution on their own for more significant legal issues, if we can scale these solutions to help the roughly 50% of cases on the lower part of our stakes/complexity framework, it will make a huge difference.

And these interventions have a lot of potential to help lawyers and the courts more efficiently and effectively resolve issues where lawyers will always play an integral role, the next two parts of this series. Stay tuned!