Most Americans will face legal issues at some point in their life. Yet, across the nation, a persistent access to justice gap exists. Individuals with significant financial resources are often the only people who can hire attorneys, and a large class of people struggle to access a lawyer at all.
Prof. Staci Pratt, who serves on the Technology Committee for the Colorado Access to Justice Commission, wants to empower her students to be part of the access to justice solution. Her inaugural 2-credit course, “Interactive Programming for Lawyers,” a.k.a. “CU Law Access to Justice Innovation Lab,” launched this semester – and she is hopeful that the work taking place in this course can be the start of a new frontier in making our justice system more accessible.
“The idea behind this [class] is to use human centered design to create legal applications,” Pratt shared. “The class covers the whole life cycle of design, using a model centered on everyday people that meets them where they are and uses plain language.”
One app developed during the course will help tenants more easily create letters to send to their landlords when experiencing specific issues with rental housing. By answering just a few questions on the app, the precise letter needed to send to a landlord will be generated, triggering the landlord’s obligation to take steps to remediate the problem.
“There is a huge power gap in Boulder County related to tenants and landlords,” Pratt explained. “When people encounter less than ideal situations in their rental housing, it can be hard to assert yourself as an individual.”
Students in the class are also working on a triage system to assist people moving through the family court system. This will help streamline the process for several court services including divorce, dissolution, and child custody by more easily identifying families who need additional services or court interventions.
Pratt is no stranger to this kind of undertaking. In her previous role at the University of Missouri Kansas City School of Law, she worked collaboratively with the Kansas Court system to develop a legal application to help individuals file protection orders related to domestic violence. This was especially helpful during the COVID-19 crisis, when it was even more difficult to access courts due to stay-at-home orders and the various public health measures that had been put in place.
Pratt believes that those in the legal profession have an obligation to make our systems accessible. Legal institutions preserve their credibility only if people can truly access them – making the work in her access to justice innovation lab a step forward in securing democratic engagement.
“If the courthouse is a confusing and inaccessible place, we have to question the validity of the institution.”
Pratt shared that the 12 students taking the course have a significant interest in access to justice and innovation. She is hopeful that by taking part in this work, students can take on new roles in the profession with the skills needed to solve the next generation of legal problems.
“This course is something that touches on many parts of who we are as an institution,” Pratt said. “It is a vital part of who we are at Colorado Law—we are committed to making sure our communities live in a better way and have a fundamental dedication to improving access to justice.”