Increasing Access to Justice

Organization Information:

Organization Name:
Pro Bono Net
City & State:
New York, 
New York
Organization Website:
Organization's Mission Statement

Pro Bono Net is a national nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access to justice for the millions of poor people who face legal problems every year without help from a lawyer. We do this by (i) supporting the innovative and effective use of technology by the nonprofit legal sector, (ii) increasing participation by volunteers, and (iii) facilitating collaborations among nonprofit legal organizations and advocates working on similar issues or in the same region.

Submission Information

Impact Essay

Every year, millions of Americans unable to afford an attorney face potentially devastating legal problems such as domestic violence, eviction, foreclosure and child custody disputes. Pro Bono Net’s National Online Document Assembly initiative allows those without a lawyer to quickly and accurately prepare critical legal forms using an easy-to-use online interface. The Online Document Assembly system, which is built on Microsoft Windows Server 2003 and SQL Server 2008 donated by Microsoft via TechSoup, asks people a series of questions and then uses their answers to produce the forms and documents they need to file in court. Pro Bono Net, a national nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to justice through the innovative use of technology, runs the Online Document Assembly project, partnering with local legal aid and pro bono programs as well as courts. Last year, Pro Bono Net supported Online Document Assembly initiatives in more than 30 states. More than 110,000 documents were produced using the system, including child support and custody documents, requests for orders of protection for victims of domestic violence, responses to creditors and divorce forms. This represents a 45 percent increase over 2007, and usage is on track to grow significantly again this year as new content is launched and more states participate. According to the American Bar Association, 50 million Americans qualify for federally funded legal assistance, and many of these individuals have significant legal needs. However, studies indicate that as much as 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor go unmet. The economic downturn has only exacerbated problems such as eviction, foreclosure, and consumer debt. At the same time, legal aid organizations are facing a resource crisis as state budgets are cut and private funding dries up. If finding free legal aid was hard before, increasing demand coupled with fewer providers has made it even more difficult. Combating this widespread problem requires new ideas about how to leverage technology so as to deliver more services, more efficiently and in new ways. Pro Bono Net is helping to meet this need by empowering people to address their own legal needs. We forge partnerships between legal aid organizations and the courts, enabling them to automate and simplify the process of filling out cumbersome legal forms. (Pro Bono Net also runs a nationwide network of sites,, where people can find referrals to local legal aid organizations and information about legal rights.) In addition to the donated server software, the Online Document Assembly system relies on Microsoft’s .NET framework to support document generation as well as user and content management functionality. The impact of Online Document Assembly can be measured in local communities around the country. A recent “Innovations” column in The Chronicle of Philanthropy highlighted some of these, including Illinois, where a legal aid group has been working with the state court system to set up legal self-help centers across the state. So far, legal self-help centers have opened in 21 of the state's 101 counties, with more scheduled to open this year. Usually they are located inside a courthouse, but in some of the most rural areas, they are located in libraries. Staff members and volunteers are available to help people use the computers and make their way through the automated documents. Online Document Assembly is also used by overstretched legal aid and volunteer attorneys trying to help underserved populations. In California, for example, staff and volunteers at a guardianship clinic at the Probate Court in Los Angeles County use Online Document Assembly to draft guardianship documents and to facilitate remote review of draft petitions by volunteer attorneys who would otherwise be unable to participate in clinics held more than two hours from downtown Los Angeles. The time savings this enables allows the clinic to serve more people in less time and turn fewer away. Because it makes filling out necessary legal forms much easier, the system also enables volunteer attorneys to get involved even if they lack expertise in particular areas of the law. In Pennsylvania, volunteer attorneys working on foreclosure cases use Online Document Assembly to help those faced with losing their homes, while in Arkansas volunteer attorneys use the system to help low-income senior citizens fill out wills, powers of attorney, and advance medical directives. In both cases, Online Document Assembly makes it much easier for attorneys to be active volunteers. Because Online Document Assembly provides a national infrastructure, the benefits of one state’s work can be leveraged by others as interview templates and development strategies are shared online. Pro Bono Net staff are committed to sharing information about local projects through e-mail lists, a dedicated support website, trainings and regular calls. The need for innovative solutions to meet the legal needs of low-income communities will only increase as the fallout from the economic downturn continues to snowball. Online Document Assembly is one significant way that technology can enable more people to get help in times of pressing need.

Submission Category
Transformations to Maximize Impact
Supporting Work Files