Online Triage in Minnesota: Building a Coalition of Services and Referrals

by Leslie Briggs, Access to Justice Technology Fellow, Legal Services State Support

Nearly 80% of all legal need goes unmet. Many Americans do not have access to legal services, do not understand their problem as legal in nature, or are ill-equipped to represent themselves in court. That means their legal issue remains unresolved or they are more likely to lose in court because they are unrepresented.

Any effort to improve access to legal resources or better equip courts and litigants for self-representation requires systems-wide coordination and coalition building. Legal Services State Support is a program that does just that.

State Support is a unique program of the Minnesota Legal Services Coalition that provides information, connections, and tools to advocates and the public to increase access to justice for all Minnesotans. It is a project that coordinates across 7 different legal aid organizations in Minnesota to support their shared mission.

State Support also focuses on leveraging technology to improve access to legal services. As an Access to Justice Technology Fellow with State Support, I am working on the rebuild of lawhelpmn.org. When the website is complete it will have 2 critical components: a forward-facing triage and the backend LOON.

Triage is an emerging technology tool designed to provide highly specific referrals to legal services organizations and self-help or educational materials. It involves an online guided interview that uses logic trees to determine what particular legal issue a person has. The concept is popping up across the country as legal aid organizations grapple with turning away about 1 in 2 people who come to them for help due to a lack of resources.

The hope is that triage will make more refined referrals to individuals who are likely to be eligible for help. If an individual is not eligible for legal aid, they will have more accurate self-help information because their legal topic will be more granular after going through triage.

LOON (which stands for Legal Organizations Online Network and is also the state bird of Minnesota) is a groundbreaking tool for legal aid organizations to coordinate services and referrals with one another. Legal aid organizations in Minnesota will be able to update eligibility information, services, clinic information, and hours by logging in to the organizational account. The information in LOON informs the referrals and self-help information generated by triage.

loon.jpg

This system alleviates the need for individual organizations to each maintain a database of organizations for referrals. It will also help legal aid organizations make smarter referrals, rather than making educated guesses about which services are best or which programs are still active.

These 2 systems, operating together, have the potential to help all Minnesotans understand their legal problems and find the right resources to deal with them more efficiently. It will make legal aid organizations more efficient because referrals will be more specific. At the same time, it will improve clarity for individual Minnesotans about what their legal problem is and whether they should seek representation.

Technology is not a silver bullet in the access to justice crisis. However, the legal profession has much to gain by employing smarter, more efficient tools that have the potential to serve more clients with better quality. The lawhelpmn.org rebuild is doing exactly that.

This article also appears in the University of Tulsa College of Law's blog, Justitia Omnia Vincit, which takes a look at access to justice in America. This blog is one law student’s take on the policies and practices of state court systems and the legal profession in ensuring access to justice for all.