A burst pipe in your apartment needs emergency work, and you want to ask a court to force the landlord to take action.
In the age of the coronavirus, like nearly every other segment of local life, the state’s court system now features additional pandemic-related obstacles to addressing such a problem.
Local legal technologist Quinten Steenhuis thinks your phone can help. Or, more specifically, apps that he is developing for your phone.
Steenhuis, who is a clinical fellow at Suffolk University’s Legal Innovation & Technology Lab, has launched a project aimed at making about 30 court forms dealing with housing and family law issues available to the public online through a series of apps in a few weeks time. Such development would normally take months, or even years, according Steenhuis, but the pandemic has acted as an accelerant for online access to such documents.
With the COVID-19 crisis raging on, the state’s courts are closed except for emergency hearings that cannot be resolved virtually. That means for many matters, access to the justice system has been curtailed.
Many court forms must be printed out, filled in by hand, and either delivered to a courthouse or scanned and submitted to court.
If a person does not have a printer or scanner in the age of the pandemic, they may be out of luck, as libraries and retail stores that offer printing for the public are closed. Additionally, the forms can be confusing for someone with no legal training.
"Those are hurdles a user-friendly form on a phone can help overcome,” said Steenhuis, a 37-year-old Cambridge resident.
Steenhuis envisions people being able to apply for a restraining order in a situation involving domestic violence through the apps. Other forms he hopes to make available are fee waivers, and ones that pertain to custody and guardianship issues. The apps would be aimed at Massachusetts courts, but Steenhuis thought the technology developed could be used as a model elsewhere.
“We’re building something that’s free, open-sourced, and it’s replicable,” said Steenhuis.
A spokeswoman for the trial court said it supports the initiative, which she described as a “a document assembly line to create mobile-friendly online court forms and materials for self-represented litigants with emergency matters who have great legal need amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”
“The Trial Court is working with Suffolk to identify the emergency matters that are currently being heard in each court department and the related forms that need to be filed in those emergency matters,” she said.
The current effort follows a successful mobile app Steenhuis built last year for people facing eviction, a tool that educated tenants about their rights, helped them file court documents, and sent text reminders about follow-up documents and court dates, according to Suffolk.
Last month, Steenhuis put out a call for help from coders, attorneys, paralegals, and volunteers with no legal or tech background who want to help. About 50 to 60 people responded, including volunteers from places as far away as Tennessee and South Africa, and are designing programming to make the apps a reality.
Suffolk University said court administrators are sharing relevant documents with its lab, which is then assigning tasks based on a volunteer’s skill set.
Massachusetts does not offer as many court forms online as other states, such as New York and Illinois, according to Steenhuis.
According to Suffolk, the call to action was spurred by a Supreme Judicial Court task force that is looking for ways “to fill cracks in justice system when the court hours and availability are markedly reduced.”
The pandemic has presented unique challenges to the state’s trial court, and this week, judicial authorities announced the establishment of a help line that the public can call to ask general questions about their civil and criminal cases and help them navigate the court system while it remains closed except for emergency matters. It can be reached by calling 833-91COURT.
All trials, whether jury or bench, in both criminal and civil cases, scheduled to begin in Massachusetts state courts on or before May 1 have continued to a date no earlier than May 4, according to an order of the Supreme Judicial Court. Bench trial for civil matters can be conducted in a way that doesn’t involve in-person proceedings, so long as the parties and court agree to such a condition.