UniCourt Announces Winners of Legal Innovation Contest

on Topics: Legal Data API | Legal Tech | News

UniCourt Announces Winners of Legal Innovation Contest

Improving access to court data at the state and federal level has a direct impact on access to justice in the United States. 

Without access to the underlying data depicting what’s actually happening in courtrooms across America, it’s exceedingly difficult to diagnose systemic problems and develop modern, data driven solutions to address them, to hold government officials accountable in the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, and to drive continued innovation in the law, seeking to make the law more accessible, useful, and better for all. 

To play our part in improving access to court data and fostering the innovation needed to move the legal system forward, UniCourt kicked off our first annual Legal Innovation Contest this past February. 

Through the contest, individuals, companies, educational institutions, and non profit organizations were all invited to submit an innovative idea for using UniCourt’s Legal Data APIs to enter for the chance to win 10,000 API calls to turn that idea into a reality. 

We received many worthy submissions in our first year of the Legal Innovation Contest, but three entries stood out above the rest. So without further ado, here are this year’s winners:

1st Place

Jonathan Franklin of University of Washington School of Law

2nd Place

Sonja Ebron of Courtroom5

3rd Place

Katie Dilks of the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation

Congratulations to all of this year’s winners!!!

To showcase our winners for 2022, we asked each of them to provide a professional bio, summarize their innovative ideas for our audience, and tell us why they think it’s important to improve access to court data. We hope you enjoy learning more about each of these impressive legal professionals as much as we did!

Jonathan Franklin of University of Washington School of Law

Jonathan is the Digital Innovation Librarian at the Gallagher Law Library at the University of Washington School of Law. Over the past 20 years, he has held a wide range of positions in the library, from database licensing to HR to directing the law library. He has taught courses on copyright and licensing, journal article creation and legal blogging, preservation of indigenous cultural heritage, and legal informatics. In addition, Jonathan also has written articles on information licensing, law librarianship, and international law issues.

He earned his A.B., A.M. Anthropology and J.D. degrees from Stanford University and M.Libr. with a Certificate in Law Librarianship from the University of Washington. Prior to the University of Washington, he spent five years as a reference librarian and foreign law selector at the University of Michigan Law Library. In law school, he was a Senior Editor of the Stanford Environmental Law Journal and a Note Editor for the Stanford Law Review. He is a member of the American Association of Law Libraries. 

Innovative Idea for Using APIs

The primary mission of the University of Washington is the preservation, advancement and dissemination of knowledge. In furtherance of this mission, UW Law and Gallagher Law Library are committed to making digital legal content more accessible to those who might not have access to expensive databases or the time to find relatively hidden legal content. 

We are developing a site that provides public access to primary (statutes, cases, and administrative codes) as well as secondary (books, articles, and discussions about the law) sources from a single simple search page. 70% of all those seeking online legal assistance in Washington State are doing so from their cell phone. A substantial portion of those do not have an easy way to use the internet from their phone or reach a public library during the hours it is open. The hope is that this project will create a model that other states will be able to adopt and implement with minimal coding experience or technical expertise.

This project provides a low-bandwidth single search page that will return reliable results from the major primary and secondary sources and is accessible 24/7. By using free and licensed content, we hope to help those in Washington State who are seeking legal assistance with their preliminary research and we hope to expand to include access to court forms and Washington Law Help content as it becomes available. The UniCourt API would play a central role in providing content for this pilot portal, notably the cases, the case classification scheme, and the case summaries.

Why do you think it is important to improve access to court data?

There are numerous well documented hurdles to access to justice, including too few legal professionals available to consult at an affordable rate, inadequate technology and bandwidth to complete available forms, incomprehensible legal terminology, and fundamental confusion about civics and the legal system/process. These blockers lead people to fear the law and legal processes, even when they are designed to assist them.

This project is a small part of a huge non-profit, court, and low-bono ecosystem. While a sophisticated user can find cases online through a Google search, when a normal user is confronted with those same results, they see a wall of text with words that make no sense. One of the benefits of the value-added legal information providers is that they offer case summaries with minimal jargon and the ability to display relevant snippets from the case. In addition, in a future iteration, we will link from legalese to a standard dictionary to further help readers.

The hope is that by providing access to case law and other content, we will help those seeking assistance to better understand what the law is, how it has been interpreted, and what words might be useful when talking with a legal professional.

Sonja Ebron of Courtroom5

Sonja Ebron is co-founder and CEO at Courtroom5, a web application for self-represented civil litigants. She is a PhD electrical engineer and former college professor with a background in utilities and artificial intelligence. Sonja has represented herself in court many times and is committed to empowering people to represent themselves effectively in court. She serves on the board of Responsive Law, a national advocacy organization focused on the rights of legal consumers, and on the Leaders Council of the Legal Services Corporation, the nation’s primary funding source for legal aid programs. She is a founding member of the Justice Technology Association, a trade organization for direct-to-consumer legal tech companies and nonprofits. 

Innovative Idea for Using APIs

When a self-represented litigant joins Courtroom5 to manage an active case, they are required to specify the procedural history of the case, one filing at a time. This onerous task allows our AI recommender to point the user to relevant training so they can make informed decisions on the next step in their case. Thereafter, the user performs claims analysis, legal research, and document assembly tasks to prepare and file a legal document. This 5-step process may be repeated each time a new filing occurs in the case, but it requires users to manually update their account with details on the new filing. However, users may fail to receive service of new filings or may neglect to update their Courtroom5 account when served, and that limits the user’s opportunity to respond appropriately. 

Access to the UniCourt Court Data API (API) solves this problem. The API is called to download procedural history of the case with available PDF filings whenever a self-represented litigant joins Courtroom5. Thereafter, a push notification via API alerts Courtroom5 that new filings have been made in tracked cases. This allows us to notify users of changes in their cases and automatically guide them to a timely response.

Why do you think it is important to improve access to court data?

We view the health of our democracy in terms of the right to vote, the right to participate in collectively choosing our executives and representatives. But access to the third branch of our government – the judicial branch – is equally important to the health of our democracy. The First Amendment to our Constitution guarantees us an individual right to petition the government. Only the courts allow us to seek redress of personal grievances, rather than grievances of the collective. The courts provide each of us a personal connection to the government, and this alone is the basis of our allegiance. 

Yet access to the courts is increasingly available only to those who can afford legal representation by an attorney. While self-represented litigants have physical access to the courthouse, they often lack the knowledge and training needed to effectively navigate court procedures. Court data holds the key to meaningful access for self-represented and lightly-represented litigants. Raw data on court filings is useful in itself, but metadata and analytics regarding court operations – routinely offered to corporate clients by their large law firms – can also level the playing field for self-represented litigants. Tremendous innovation in delivery of legal services would follow increased availability of court data. I believe fair access to court data is necessary to exercising one’s right to be heard in court.

Katie Dilks of the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation

Katie Dilks is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing Oklahomans’ meaningful participation in a fair and accessible civil justice system. Katie brings over a decade of experience in access to justice work to her role, including her 9 years at Georgetown Law as the school’s Associate Director for the Office of Public Interest and Community Service. Katie developed and led Georgetown’s innovative Public Interest Fellows program, working with over 600 students to prepare them for careers as public interest attorneys. 

Katie has written and presented on access to justice topics including the need for affordable legal services, pro bono responses to disaster, career pathways in government and nonprofit law, and diversity and compensation trends in legal services. 

Innovative Idea for Using APIs

The Oklahoma Access to Justice Foundation is conducting a qualitative and quantitative survey of the state’s eviction court processes this summer, with a particular focus on how eviction court operates in rural parts of the state. UniCourt’s data tools will allow us to compare processes and outcomes between rural, suburban, and urban courts, including differences in legal representation and reported grounds for eviction. 

Additionally, the ATJ Foundation and the University of Oklahoma are developing a collaborative Legal Design Lab. Participants in the newly crafted Legal Design Lab will tackle potential solutions and recommendations to underserved courts for standardization to improve meaningful access for Oklahomans without legal representation. Through this new collaboration, UniCourt’s court data and APIs will enable the ATJ Foundation and law students from all three Oklahoma law schools to leverage actual court data to investigate potential outcome differences in district courts across the state that may be attributable to variation in court processes and forms.

Why do you think it is important to improve access to court data?

You cannot change something you cannot measure. Open, transparent, and usable court data is critical to accurately assess how current processes impact litigants and other court users. Our court systems were built largely to reflect a reality that no longer exists – one in which parties on both sides of a legal dispute are represented by an attorney. By some estimates, 80% of civil cases in state courts now have at least one unrepresented party. Court rules and processes based on our old assumptions often have a detrimental impact on unrepresented litigants, but without accurate, accessible court data it is challenging to determine the scale and scope of that impact. 

Tools like UniCourt’s allow organizations dedicated to expanding access to justice to develop data-driven recommendations and solutions as we collaboratively build a court system that responds to our current reality. 


We’re excited to collaborate with Jonathan, Sonja, and Katie to bring their innovative ideas to life, and look forward to updating you on their progress as the year unfolds. 

Carrying Legal Innovation Forward

UniCourt’s core mission as a company is to improve access to state and federal court data. 

As an industry leader in making court data more accessible and useful through our Legal Data as a Service (LDaaS) via our APIs and online app, UniCourt is committed to carrying legal innovation forward, because we know the difference it can make in closing the widening access to justice gap.

We’re incredibly thankful to everyone who participated in UniCourt’s 2022 Legal Innovation Contest, and are eager to see what new innovative idea submissions 2023 has in store. 

If you have your own innovative ideas on how to use UniCourt’s APIs and you don’t want to wait for next year’s contest, we welcome you to reach out and Contact Us

Let’s make your innovation happen!