Legal professionals, do you long for the day when you can use open source (read as nearly free) tools to help do your job? Non-lawyers, do you want open access to the courts? If you answered yes, it's worth pledging a few bucks to help make that dream a reality.
This is an open source-open API project. Visit our official website, WeJudicate.org, for more information and to read our open letters.
"For $25, the price of one filing + an invoice from Lexis in Texas, you can back a project that will help increase access to courts all over the United States."
-- Courtney Minick, LexisTexas: Privatizing Access to Public Courts, Justia.com (Feb 2011)
The idea behind WeJudicate took hold last summer while I was working on the Navajo Nation providing legal aid. The prior summer, I had interned with the Navy JAG in DC. Both experiences exposed me to a digital divide in the legal community. My employers both had access to electronic research tools like West & Lexis, but neither the Military nor the Navajo court systems had electronic filing, and as I researched the state of electronic case management systems, I found that many legal aid organizations couldn't even afford rudimentary systems for screening out conflicts, tracking hours, and managing active cases. In short, I found myself conducting a number of tasks and thinking, "There has to be a better way to do this." I knew that an electronic filing system existed for the federal courts (PACER), and I knew that large law firms made use of sophisticated case management systems. So I started to ask why those tools weren't available to large swaths of the legal community.
I discovered that one of the courts I worked with had pushed for electronic filing but couldn't move forward for budget reasons. I discovered that some judges had a moral objection to the idea that counsel should have to pay for access to materials in the docket as required by the PACER model. This introduced me to the free access to law movement which seeks to make primary legal materials available online for free, and I started to think about what I could do. For the last few years I have been working on software projects under the general banner of Government 2.0, an attempt to improve the workings of government in the Internet age. During my summer with the JAG, the Obama administration had just announced an Open Government Initiative, and at least at the federal level, the executive branch seemed ready to make some real changes. The directive, of course, didn't extend to the judiciary, and I knew that PACER was deeply entrenched. The CIO of the DoD had released a memo placing open source software on an equal footing with commercial software, and I realized what I could do. I could build a platform for those courts not already using PACER, those courts that wanted e-filing but couldn't afford it or didn't agree with the fee structures offered by the likes of Lexis. It would be an open source alternative that the courts could use free of charge, and it could act as a model to show that PACER's fee approach wasn't the only way. I couldn't effect change in the federal courts directly, but I could help lay the foundation for the aspirations of law.Gov (a collection of proposed principles for the dissemination of primary legal materials).
My concern, however, wasn't just with access to legal materials but with their entire life cycle. Electronic filing would help improve efficiency once materials were submitted to the courts, but what about the work of attorneys leading up to filing? I'm currently a member of BU's Criminal Law Clinic, working in the Boston Municipal Court defending indigent clients, and it's the third court system I've worked in not to have electronic filing, and our case management system is pretty much a set of spreadsheets.
Small law firms, solo practitioners, and legal aid organizations don't have access to sophisticated case management systems because they can't afford them, and there's no market incentive for developers to make systems at a price point within their reach. It makes more sense to offer $100K systems to the top 10 firms than it does to offer $1K systems to 999 legal aid organizations, and given the nature of legal representation as a common good, this seems like a market failure crying out for a solution. Again, open source seems to be the right fit, and by developing both an electronic filing system and an electronic case management system in parallel, communication between the two can be built in from the start, further streamlining the workflow of attorneys, thereby increasing their efficiency and, consequently, their ability to provide services to those in need.
This is where the open API aspect comes into play as it is hoped that such an arrangement will lead to the development of a rich ecosystem of tools for practitioners and the courts as third-parties build upon the foundation established by the WeJudicate build.
Design and build an open source-open API* electronic docketing system, tailored for use by the courts. At a minimum, such a system would allow for the secure electronic submission, retrieval, and organization of court documents (e.g., orders, motions, memos, etc.) by authorized parties.
Design and build an open source-open API* electronic case management system, tailored for use by legal aid organizations and boutique law firms. At a minimum, such a system would follow a case from intake through disposition, allowing for the storage of client and case information while automatically establishing eligibility under grant requirements, screening out conflicts, tracking hours worked, and allowing access to client data based on user-defined permissions. It would also be built to directly interface with the WeJudicate docketing system, allowing for seamless submission and retrieval of court documents.
*We hope to have our open source-open API software add an additional requirement to traditional open source constraints by requiring that users allow authenticated access to the system through a built-in API. For example, if a court was using the docketing system to publish orders in public cases on its website, it would also have to enable access via the software's built-in API. Likewise, if it granted specific attorneys access to documents, those attorneys could access the data either through the court's portal or via an API with authentication. This requirement is intended to foster the development of a rich ecosystem of tools for the court system. For example, other case management systems would be free to access court APIs to submit and retrieve documents. Working out appropriate language for this is one of our design challenges, albeit legal, as we move forward.
Additionally, as a precursor to the actual build, I will be working with stakeholders to construct a set of open standards for data handling similar to those outlined by Law.Gov. I have already started low-level talks with at least one court and one legal aid organization that seem open to consulting on the build and perhaps alpha or beta testing the product. I believe that securing funding for the project will help these entities commit.
WeJudicate is a project of Anaces, Inc., which is comprised of David Colarusso (myself) and Josh Estelle. I will be heading up the project. Anaces is a small software development firm which has produced large-scale national and international participatory platforms as well as an information management system for large institutions. See, for example, 10questions & 10Perguntas.
We are asking for $23,000 by the end of the day on March 31, 2011. This money would be used to pay my salary through June 2012. If the project gets funded, I'm willing to wait a year before taking a "normal" legal job. Prior to the build, I will coordinate with alpha testers and stakeholders to establish a set of well-defined open standards and functional specifications for the public beta to be released in June 2012. Anaces will match this money up to $20k to supplement my salary and pay for additional expenses such as legal advice on drafting the open API section of the license.
Phase One: Assessing interest (securing funding) (winter 2011) Phase Two: Creation of open standards and functional specifications (spring & summer 2011) Phase Three: Private build and alpha testing (fall 2011) Phase Four: Private beta testing followed by public release (winter-spring 2012) Phase Five: Public beta release in June 2012
The WeJudicate project will release its source code under an open source-open API license, and it intends to support a turnkey solution at some point in the future for those courts and organizations who do not wish to host their own implementation. The exact nature of the licensing is not yet determined as it will require the addition of custom language for the open API component .
I intend to host the code on a repository such as GitHub. A final language for the system is not yet determined and will be decided with the input of stakeholders, mostly court and legal services IT staff. The assumption, however, is that we will be working in a LAMP environment. I am currently leaning to OAuth as an authentication method and a simple RESTful API.
These details will be the focus of phase two of the Implementation (i.e., Creation of Open Standards and Functional Specifications).