Everyone knows that when you’re arrested for a crime, you are guaranteed a lawyer even if you can’t afford one. But what if you can’t afford a lawyer for divorce, custody issue or a civil dispute? Lawyers don’t come cheap—some cost upwards of several hundred dollars just for one hour of their time. This is a problem lower and middle class citizens of the country face as they have to find means to solve their civil issues without an affordable lawyer. Trying to resolve that problem is a group of hackers, programmers and social justice advocates who have planned the first ever Social Justice Hackathon at The Seattle University School of Law.
A hackathon is an event that brings together computer programmers, graphic designers, software developers, and just about anybody who uses a computer for something other than Netflix and Tumblr in an attempt to win a competition, or in this case, solve a problem.
The two-day long coding event, which starts at 6 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 6, is the product of the combined efforts of Miguel Willis, a law student at Seattle U, Diana Singleton, director of Seattle University School of Law Access to Justice Institute, Daniel Sandoval, an undergraduate from the University of Washington and Khyrie Alleyne, Founder of the SelfieFaze Mobile App.
Willis, who has been spearheading the event, explained its origins.
“Last year, I was at a legal tech hackathon and one of the pillars was social justice, but most of the projects that come out of it were for ‘for-profit’ legal,” Willis said.
This didn’t sit well with him, and, as a student at Seattle U, he found that the mission and goals of the Jesuit university were a fitting place to try and spark a change.
“The core of the hackathon is identifying core problems and connecting with experts to find solutions,” Willis said.
Willis explained that at a recent hackathon in Philadelphia, the attendants were able to create a free application for expunging a person’s record after a crime. Lawyers normally charge upwards of $2,000 for this sort of work, but the hackathon built an app that allows people with lower incomes to do it for free.
A report, released on Oct. 29 by the Washington State Supreme Court, titled “Civil Legal Needs Study Update,” found that over 70 percent of the state’s low-income households face at least one civil legal issue annually. But not all can afford to have them resolved. So, if they were arrested for a criminal charge, they could easily get access to some sort of lawyer, but if they have a civil dispute, they are forced to fend for themselves and somehow attain large sums of money.
Sandoval, one of the organizers, is excited and optimistic about the event.
“The best part of a hackathon is you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen. Our hope was to give participants a great problem to solve, not just a cash prize or internship.”
The hackathon is putting heavy emphasis on teamwork and creativity.
“There are many problems that can be addressed for civil legal needs by bringing together a group of people in a room,” Willis said. “This won’t be the next great solution to the problem, but when you get these people together, we’re going to be able to get solid solutions—we’re going to start the conversation.”
Software engineer Chuck Sweet, a participant in the event, said he is no expert in the social justice field but wants to contribute his education towards something good.
“It wasn’t clear to me how I could play a part,” Sweet said. “I work at DocuSign and we have a program where you can do different non-profit stuff that counts for working hours. I found the Social Justice Hackathon on Geekwire, and it made a lot of sense. It’s not going to count towards working hours, but I think it’s a good way that I can use my skills to help out.”
The hackathon hopes to address a range of issues with applications that can help with anything from basic legal help, to mobile technologies that will allow easier access, document-assembly applications and more.
Whatever the results of the hackathon, the aim is to create some sort of service that can benefit those in need and help rebuild faith in the civil legal system and the event organizers are looking for all the help they can get. There are currently 42 confirmed participants and volunteers, but they are urging any and all to apply. Those interested in registering for the event can find more at socialjusticehackathon.com.
Scott may be reached at [email protected]