We should be, for the sake of millions
of people with pressing legal needs.
By maRc lauRitsEn
Often neglected in these discussions
is whether restricting the distribution of
software is within the legitimate scope
of government action. No one would
contend that attempts to suppress
books, pamphlets, and speeches on how
the legal system works and what forms
one needs to interact with it would pass
constitutional muster. Is providing software that helps people meet their legal
needs an activity the state can prohibit
under the U.S. Constitution?
Here, I explore ways software-based
legal-assistance systems can be understood for purposes of public policy and
constitutional analysis. The focus is on
circumstances in the U.S., but many
other countries face the same issues.
assistance and authorization
Individuals and organizations who
need to prepare documents with legal
significance turn to a variety of sourc-
es, including form books, courts,
government agencies, physical form
suppliers,a packaged software,b on-
line form sites,c free online document
repositories,d notaries public, legal-
document technicians, conventional
a See, for example, Blumberg (http://www.blum-
b See, for example, Turbotax ( http://turbotax.in-tuit.com), Will Maker ( http://www.nolo.com/
and WillWriter ( http://www.broderbund.
c See, for example, U.S. Legal Forms (http://
( http://www.smartlegalforms.com), and Com-pleteCase.com ( http://completecase.com)
d See, for example, Docracy ( http://www.docra-cy.com/)
the eMergenCe oF interactive online services for
legal self-helpers has triggered suppression efforts
by the legal profession, as well as by state
government officials in the U.S. While couched in
terms of consumer protection, and at least partly
motivated by such concerns, these efforts are also
seen by some as blatant turf management by a
profession anxious to avoid further erosion of its
monopoly over legal advice and representation.
online document-preparation services
and other forms of automated legal
assistance raise concerns about the
unauthorized practice of law.
such concerns should be balanced
against social policy and economic
software programs are more like books
than like personal human services when
determining whether they deserve
protection under provisions like the first
amendment of the u.s. constitution.