Application Development

'Hackcess to Justice': Lawyers & coders in Louisiana

“There definitely is a disconnect between the average lawyer and the average programmer,” says William Palin, a lawyer and software developer who emerged as second place winner with his app paperless at last weekend’s Hackcess to Justice event in New Orleans.

“I think most of that is the stigma attached to lawyers and the law in general. It creates a barrier for the two groups to commingle, which is why events like these are so important.”

This event was run by the ABA Journal, and was the second of its kind – in fact, Palin won the first event in Massachusetts last Summer. The overall aim was to bring lawyers and technologists together to create apps for the benefit of society. This was no mean feat because the processes, language and idiosyncrasies of both the law and technology are often extremely baffling to ordinary people… and each other.  

Tom Ortega, Principal at mobile and web app development company, Omega Ortega, which won for its Legal Proof app [YouTube video] explained: “Because of our intense focus on tech, we often find ourselves ignorant to social situations going on around us. If you listen to the lawyers, what happens to people who can’t afford lawyers is offensive, horrifying and heart wrenching.”

The aim of Legal Proof is to give those who can’t afford legal services an easy way to gather evidence. This is done via a smartphone using the camera and an app. The idea is simple but as Ortega put it, “The judges and lawyers seem to think our mobile app can help millions, which would be great. However, even if it just helps one person, all the time and effort would be worth it.”

“We understand the technology, but not the law,” he continued. “That’s why it was so great that the hackathon connected us to legal resources to ensure we could do this correctly.”

The app is free to download and over the coming weeks the team is planning to run through a series of final extra checks to ensure that all material collected “works is in accordance with Louisiana court standards for evidence”.

Last Summer William Palin won the first version of this event with an app called PaperHealth. This allows residents of Massachusetts to create, sign, share, save and print a legally binding health care proxy and a non-legally binding living will.

“In Massachusetts, if you don’t have a health care proxy, the right to make a decision for a loved one does not necessarily rest with next of kin, and could end up in the court system,” he explained. “I thought hospitals could just let people know they’re is an app for it and people could have a lower barrier of entry to filling one out.”  

This app has had a couple of hundred downloads – it is free in the App Store. And he told us: “I’ve had tentative conversations with Vermont and Virginia to bring a version of the app to their states, but nothing has really come together yet.”

“This hackathon was very different because I was trying to build a working demo/concept instead of a fully flushed out application,” he continued. This included teaming up with New Orleans attorney Ernie Svenson to create their automatic document generation app.

As their submission document explained: “The app would allow organisations to text clients without sharing a phone number and allow clients to continue to communicate without a phone plan or if their minutes run out. The app even supports push notifications and local reminders, so clients will be reminded of upcoming meetings, court dates and other legal issues.”

The third place at the event went to, Operation Spark, an organisation which helps give young people employment by teaching them to code. “The ExpungeMe app came about during the brainstorming session with lawyers at the hackathon,” said CEO, John Fraboni.

Expungement is the legal process whereby a record of an arrest or a criminal conviction is erased. Yet as Fraboni and his team discovered, many people are confused by the process, do not realise that a lawyer isn’t needed, and are put off by a complicated form. “Our developer team figured we could quickly prototype a solution, and given the impact expungement affords, namely access to employment, it was a meaningful attainable solution.”

“We're piloting an immersive coding bootcamp within the Juvenile Detention Center in New Orleans. This will provide incarcerated youth with the same track as our software creation education. On top of learning hard skills, our students will continue to create software solutions to address concerns in the legal system,” he concluded.

At present hackathons are cropping up everywhere to bring a diverse range of communities together. Some of these are successful, some are less successful, but this is an interesting initiative because it brings together two groups of people that don’t normally meet. The problem is that the short time frame afforded by a weekend is always a limitation.

As Ortega from the winning team put it: “While we built this app to be free, we had a larger idea that we knew we couldn't execute in the hackathon time frame. [This] had more power to disrupt the legal system than the idea we actually launched.”

He described it as “An easy way to query past civil court cases” and hopes to get it off the ground soon too.


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