Citzen Coders Serving Justice

WeJudicate is a proposed open source open-API project aimed at creating two parallel and complementary software solutions for the courts and attorneys--a case management system for use by legal practitioners and an electronic docketing system for use by the courts. The idea took hold 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? At the time I proposed WeJudicate, I was a member of BU's Criminal Law Clinic, working in the Boston Municipal Court defending indigent clients, and it was the third court system I'd worked in not to have electronic filing, and our case management system was 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.

In the spring of 2011, my 3L year, I proposed to fund full-time WeJudicate development through a combination of Kickstarter funding and support from Anaces. We fell short of our funding goal, but here's the pitch video anyway.

The project has gone into hibernation since I started working full-time. As such, there is no firm launch date for the first version of the code base. If you would like to stay in the loop, join our mailing list or follow the project on twitter.

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    You can find a selection of WeJudicate media coverage on my CV.

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