CrowdDefend founder, Hiraa Khan, recently sat down the Legal Funding Central to share her motivation for starting CrowdDefend. Below is an excerpt from the interview. You can access the full story here.
What’s your background, and what led you to create CrowdDefend?
I have worked in the social justice space for over a decade. One of the most defining experiences was my three-year term on the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California’s Board of Directors, where I saw first hand how incredibly hard it was for ordinary citizens to get legal advice, a day in court, or a fair trial if they did not have the capital necessary to hire an attorney.
Simultaneously, I was working full-time at Google Inc. where I got to work on tech products that empowered people all over the world. My experience at Google was a great primer for the power of technology for social good.
More recently, after completing my Masters in Public Policy from the University of California, Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, I founded a mobile giving app for iPhone and Android, called GiveMob. GiveMob, a nonprofit, makes it easy for individuals to donate small dollar amounts to nonprofits. My experience with building and launching GiveMob not only helped me to better understand the technical development process, but also helped me understand how people think about giving and contributing to social causes.
What do you see as the biggest problems in our legal system right now? What will it take to solve them?
While there are a number of problems with our justice system, one of the major issues is lack of access to meaningful legal representation.
We rely on our justice system to secure the rule of law for all citizens, regardless of age, gender, race, or socio-economic status, in issues small and large. However, far too often ordinary people are denied access to the courts because of lack of access to capital. Unlike in criminal cases, in civil disputes there is no guarantee of legal representation. While publicly and privately funded legal aid services can offer advice and representation to those that can’t afford an attorney out-of-pocket, the funding for these organizations is extremely restricted.
This leaves millions of Americans without adequate legal representation for issues that have far reaching personal and professional consequences. Some states have fewer than 1 civil legal aid lawyer per 10,000 residents who rank as poor under federal standards. In California, where we’re based, 67% of the legal needs of the state’s poor remain unmet by legal aid programs.
The prohibitive costs of legal representation, court fees, associated trial costs can exclude most lower and middle income Americans from participating in the justice system. This results in an astonishingly high number of legitimate legal matters that never make it to the courtroom. At CrowdDefend we believe this is a fundamental violation of this country’s promise.
You spent three years on the ACLU’s Northern California Board of Directors; are there any stories from your experience there that stand out in your memory?
One of my most memorable moments at the ACLU was meeting Fred Korematsu. I had the honor of meeting him with a small group before he passed away in 2005. In 1942, Fred Korematsu, who was born and raised in Oakland, California, refused a federal order to report to a Japanese-American interment camp in Northern California. Instead he went into hiding, but was later arrested for disobeying the federal order. The ACLU approached him soon after his arrest and asked to use him and his story to challenge the legality of Japanese internment in America.
Most people would assume that Korematsu was unafraid of the consequences he was facing, and was well-versed in the American legal system. As he narrated himself, this was not the case. He was an ordinary person who, despite being terrified of legal consequences, thought the federal internment of Japanese Americans was wrong. He told us that he had no idea the ACLU would step in to help him, and had they not stepped in he was very aware of the fact that there were few other options for legal representation available to him.
Hearing his story, from him, was incredibly powerful, as it really made me wonder how many ‘Fred Korematsu’s’ were out there – individuals fighting for their rights and the rights of their fellow citizens that may or may not ever have a chance to be heard in court. Korematsu once famously said, “people should have a fair trial and a chance to defend their loyalty in court in a democratic way…”