It can be tough to navigate the court system these days, getting questions answered and forms filed with the restricted access required amid the coronavirus pandemic.
But the Suffolk University Law School Legal Innovation and Technology Lab has made it quick and easy to deal with certain legal issues by launching MassAccess, a website with user-friendly court forms that can be filled in and submitted remotely.
”We created step-by-step, guided processes, which is a lot like sitting down across the table from a lawyer who is going to help walk you through a form one-on-one,” said Quinten Steenhuis, a clinical fellow in the LIT lab who leads the project.
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The free online tool walks users through the necessary paperwork for emergency housing issues and domestic violence protective orders, similar to the way that Turbo Tax walks you through your tax form.
“All of our forms we built so that somebody can use them who has no background in the law and we made them so they are accessible to people in different languages,” Steenhuis said. “We aimed to let people access the information if they have at least a fourth grade education level. And it can be used on a smartphone or a computer.”
While most of the forms are for state filings, MassAccess' CDC Eviction Moratorium Assistant provides legal help for struggling renters across the country. They can quickly determine if they qualify to avoid eviction under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recent eviction moratorium order, which holds force in Massachusetts since Gov. Charlie Baker let the state's eviction moratorium expire.
“There are millions of tenants around the country right now that are at risk of being evicted. And what our tool does is, it takes the Centers for Disease Control’s order, which lets some tenants who qualify stop their eviction, and it makes it easy for a tenant to find out, do I qualify?” Steenhuis said.
“There are five things that they have to know and we walk them through it step by step. And then we actually help them create that declaration that they need to send to their landlord and it actually delivers it right to their landlord for them,” he continued.
Jorge Colon, a court service center manager with the Massachusetts Trial Courts, says the online forms have helped.
“This project is extremely helpful,” Colon said. “When people call to receive assistance at the Court Service Center, we can refer them to the different tools that this project has created and they are able to do the same things that they could do at the court house through this project.”
This is an ongoing effort and Suffolk Law is continuing to expand the number of court forms available. It's partnering with other states to help serve more people.
“I think the biggest feedback we’ve gotten is the numbers,” said Steenhuis. “The first week that we released that tool that works for the Centers for Disease Control’s order, we had more than a thousand people who used it around the country in all 50 states. It really has the power to let you help a lot of people in a short time.”