Access to Justice Technology Bill of Rights

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Donald J Horowitz
Wash State Access to Justice Tech Principles Comm

Recent and ongoing developments in information, communication and associated technologies, including the Internet, and the current and future use of such technologies pose significant challenges to full and equal access to the justice system. Technology can provide increased pathways for access to justice, but it can also create significant barriers.


The Washington State Supreme Court established the Access to Justice Board to facilitate, enhance and safeguard that access by Order of April 18, 1994. In that Order the Access to Justice ("ATJ") Board was given the mission to promote and facilitate equal access to justice, and, among other tasks, to develop and implement policies and initiatives that will enhance, improve and strengthen access to justice. On November 2, 2000, the Supreme Court re-authorized the ATJ Board, charging it with responsibility to assure high quality access for all persons in Washington State who suffer disparate access barriers to the justice system. The Court gave the ATJ Board the task, among others, to "develop and implement new programs and innovative measures designed to expand access to justice in Washington State".

In the spring of 2000, the Access to Justice Board concluded that technological innovations and changes and their application to and adoption into various core systems in the broader society, and in the justice system particularly, were still in their early stages, and that as yet but a few waves in the justice system and access to it had been felt. At the same time, the Board recognized that a great volume of change, indeed a transformation, is building and will inevitably and significantly impact access to the justice system, indeed the very nature, functioning and products of the system itself. The Board concluded that in the absence of careful deliberation, planning, preparation and action, these enormous oncoming changes could have the destructive effects of a tsunami tidal wave, but on the other hand if this great energy of change were prepared for and constructively channeled and utilized, the public and the justice system would not only avoid significant damage but would likely garner substantial benefits for all persons to a more accessible, efficient, equitable and effective justice system.

The ATJ Board


Currently, technology is creating opportunities for people to use their home or a nearby library branch or community center to initiate or respond to court or other legal or law related needs, obligations or requirements, communicate and exchange documents with their legal service provider or others in or associated with the legal system less expensively, using less time and effort, without having to travel to a central city, and with less time away from work or other necessary resources. This can be especially important for the elderly, the disabled, persons with limited financial means, and those who literally can’t afford to miss time from work for reasons of financial need or jeopardizing their employment. Similarly, a person with limited mobility or hearing may be able to get information electronically about his or her rights as a tenant; a victim of domestic violence can learn on the Internet what she can do and in fact be able to start the legal process of protecting herself. The courts and other parts of the justice system can operate more productively and less expensively, making court and legal records and information available and receive filings, fees, documents and information, all electronically. These are only beginning possibilities.

However, these very possibilities also create the risk of worsening old barriers or erecting new barriers to access and causing greater disparities. While the opportunities described above seem positive, these innovations assume access to a computer, reasonable proficiency at using the machines and necessary software programs, reading capability, fluency in English and sufficient phone or cable and electricity availability and capacity at affordable cost to support the connections and streams of information and interactivity. Without all of that, those who have the tools and means, the proficiency and the phone or other infrastructure available get further ahead and those without fall further behind in having the justice system work for them. The lack of equality gets greater, not less.

As a further example, it has been proposed that the United States Code (the federal law that governs all of us) should be published electronically only - no more paper. This saves money for the government, but the content of the law is then available selectively only, and access to essential information has been made much more difficult for some sectors of society. Barriers like this already exist with respect to what is meant to be and called public information in the records of some federal agencies that are now available only electronically. Consider also a well-intentioned court-based electronic filing system which ends up giving priority attention to those who use that system (those with a computer, an internet connection and the skill to navigate what may be a complex software program) instead of those who do traditional in-person filing.

There has been talk of privatizing certain traditionally public justice system functions such as storage, maintenance and access to court files and records, which functions may be rendered commercially viable by the use of electronic digitalization, maintenance, storage and search procedures. Such discussions anticipate that while the courts themselves would not have to pay for these services, members of the public and those who represent, assist or advocate for them would be charged. Without making any judgment as to the desirability or lack thereof of some privatization, it does become apparent that without careful and enforceable standards prerequisite to any possible privatization (in this or other areas), critical parts and functions of the justice system could well become highly and disparately inaccessible to a great many individuals and major segments of the public with often significant and damaging consequences.

The foregoing are but a few issues and problems that are readily apparent. Many others exist, some already recognized, others awaiting study, discovery and solution.


Our solution is:

To develop, adopt and implement an Access to Justice Technology Bill of Rights premised on relevant principles contained in the United States and Washington State Constitutions, the core values of our society and its system of justice and the mission, principles, documents and declarations generated in the creation, operation and reauthorization of the Access to Justice Board.

Identify and implement the strategies, means and methods to ensure that the principles contained in the Access to Justice Technology Bill of Rights are adopted by an authoritative body, become publicly known, accepted, enforceable and effective. An example would be adoption by the State Supreme Court as a Court Rule, thus meeting the need for it becoming an authoritative and enforceable standard while maintaining adaptability when changing technologies and societal conditions require, subject to a rigorous and deliberative rule-making process.

Provide an accompanying document in the nature of a “Societal Impact Statement” which identifies and demonstrates both the short term and long term consequences that adoption, enforcement and implementation of the Access to Justice Technology Bill of Rights will likely generate for the justice system, its consumers and potential consumers, those working in or associated with the justice system, and also for the broader society, its systems, organizations and personnel, including but not limited to libraries, community and senior centers, infrastructure needs and such. The societal impact and consequences of not accomplishing the goals and tasks will also be identified and demonstrated. This document should be the basis for and an incentive to develop a coherent, balanced and timely plan to prepare for and shape such consequences and meet requirements. It is intended to stimulate, initiate, assist and enable appropriate deliberation, decision-making, planning and implementation, as well as provide an impetus to martial the societal and political will and resources to accomplish these objectives.

Assure that the product is legitimate and credible by assuring that the process of developing and creating the product is legitimate and credible. The process must enable, listen to and receive information, viewpoints and suggestions from many people and many groups representing a vast array of backgrounds, experiences, perspectives and expertise, never neglecting to include those the justice system is meant to serve – its consumers and end users.

This effort is the first and to the present only such undertaking anywhere. As a result, people and organizations from many other places have become involved in this effort to help produce as good an outcome as possible. They have said they want to help develop a model that other states, regions and countries may adapt and use. This effort may also provide an example that can be used in other sectors of basic public need, such as access to health care. The process is open to the involvement and assistance of all. While our charge is to create an excellent result for the people of Washington State, if our process and our product is also of sufficient quality to help others beyond our borders, then so much the better. Indeed, the happy fact is that such openness also pays the dividend of enabling us to receive the benefit of the vast and different experiences and best ideas of many others, which will in turn benefit the people of our own state. Value is added for all. Simply stated, everyone can win.

A great deal has been said and written about what has come to be called “The Digital Divide”, both domestically and internationally. Respect for and use of the rule of law is an essential way to move to a less divided, more equitable society and world. Accessible quality justice for all individuals and groups is a recognized worldwide value. Meaningful access to justice can and does empower people to be part of creating their own just societies. The Access to Justice Technology Bill of Rights will be an important contribution to that never-ending effort.

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