Hacking the Law: Apps That Protect Legal Rights

11/10/2014 05:25 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

Twenty years ago, I cut my teeth as a young legal aid lawyer representing tenant associations in tenement buildings in Harlem and Washington Heights in New York City. Landlords, sometimes intentionally, sometimes because of poor building plumbing and insulation, would too often deny tenants essential rights, like heat and hot water. Tenants would feel this acutely during the winter months, when a cold spell could cause ice to form in sinks and 100-year-old drafty windows would fail to keep out the winter chill. My clients would sleep under mounds of blankets, often in their winter coats. It would get so bad that they would take great risks to try to get warm, heating their homes by leaving gas ovens running with the oven door open. They would have to head out into the cold in the morning without a hot shower, and their children would go to school after a sponge bath with water heated on stoves or in ovens.

Getting the landlord to comply with the law was hard enough. Documenting that the landlord was not complying with the law was even harder. Because certain temperatures would trigger the landlord's obligation to provide heat during particular months, tenants had to prove that temperatures had dipped below the law's limit. And tenants had to keep meticulous records, tracking the dates and specific times when the landlord was obligated to provide heat and yet failed to do so. The tenants then had to submit these records to a court to prove that a landlord had failed to comply with the law. Failing to follow strict rules regarding the submission of evidence could get the tenant's case bounced out of court, and the tenant would be back at square one.

A new app might just change all of this. Heat Seek NYC will help tenants document when the landlord is obligated to provide heat and when he or she is failing to do so. It will collect data about landlord violations, help tenants document those violations and then assist them in proving their case in court. It will also help responsible landlords who wish to comply with the law identify problems with the delivery of heat so that they can provide their tenants with this essential service.

Heat Seek NYC is part of a new trend. Individuals and organizations are creating web-based and mobile applications that can help protect and further legal rights. In early August 2014, the American Bar Association co-sponsored, with Suffolk University Law School, a technology competition entitled "Hackcess to Justice." First prize in the legal hackathon went to PaperHealth, an app that creates living wills and healthcare proxies. An app called disastr, which provides news and legal information related to natural disasters, came in second. Third place went to an app called Due Processr, an interactive tool for residents in Massachusetts to determine their eligibility for free legal services and calculate state prison sentences.

Recently, a team from Albany Law School, together with students and faculty from the University at Albany and the Empire Justice Center, a non-profit legal services provider, teamed up to create a web-based application to aid homeowners in New York State who have fallen behind on their mortgage. This application helps homeowners get assistance both navigating negotiations with their mortgage lender as well as defending themselves in the foreclosure process. The app has a mobile version so that homeowners can access it on their smart phones while they're in court, getting up-to-the-minute guidance and help as they face foreclosure.

What these apps can do is improve the access of low- and moderate-income individuals and families to critical legal assistance when they need it most: i.e., when they are being denied heat, are facing foreclosure or are facing a natural or man-made disaster.

Too many low- and moderate-income individuals and families face their legal problems without the assistance of a lawyer. For the poor, free legal aid is available to only a small minority of those eligible for such services because of limited funding to the legal programs that serve these communities. For those ineligible for such services because their income is too high, they are denied access to legal assistance simply because they cannot afford a lawyer.

While no app can substitute for the representation of a zealous and skilled lawyer, apps like Heat Seek NYC and the foreclosure guide help to close the "justice gap": the millions of low- and moderate-income Americans who do not have access to a lawyer to address their legal problems. As described in greater detail here, by harnessing the power of the internet and mobile apps, those interested in promoting access to justice can ensure everyone can learn about and protect their legal rights, regardless of their ability to pay. All they need is a smart phone.