Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) has released a prototype online tool – developed with Code for Australia – for the purposes of intake triage. In this first iteration, the subject coverage is fairly limited and the content fairly shallow. The value of the project is more in its potential than its achievement. It demonstrates the first steps to an interactive use of the internet, something shown much more radically by the Dutch Rechtwijzer programme or MyLawBC, but which nonetheless remains revolutionary for most providers of linear advice and information on the net – of which Citizens Advice is an example in England and Wales.
VLA describes its tool in these terms, as an:
online checker, which aims to help people who have legal problems that are considered ‘out of scope’ for VLA, meaning we are not the appropriate place for their legal problem.
Our Legal Help lawyers can spend up to 5 minutes on the phone for each caller who has an issue that is out of scope for VLA. The online checker provides an alternative way for these people to get help, simply by answering questions online, while also relieving wait times for others who have issues VLA can help with.
The first iteration of the online checker deals only with the most common out of scope matters for Legal Help. Feedback and learnings from the first version will be invaluable in further developing the tool to include more topics and help achieve the overall goal, of better matching people with the right legal service.
The potential for time and cost saving will be important for VLA. Its last annual report shows that it received 186,389 legal help calls in 2015-6.
VLA is still acting under legislation passed in the late 1970s with statutory objectives that include pursing ‘innovative means of providing legal aid directed at minimising the need for individual legal services in the community’ and gives the organisation a wide brief the includes research reform, eduction and grant aid to voluntary legal aid bodies (ss4 and 6 Legal Aid Act 1978).
Victoria has a long tradition of engagement with community legal education. Fitzroy Legal Centre has just published the 2017 version of The Law handbook, forty years after the first. And, on a visit a quarter of a century ago, I was impressed by Victorian commitment to legal education and information – something which clearly continues:
Despite funding restrictions, education is playing a major role in the work of [Australian] legal aid commissions. It is expressly included … in the statutory objects of the Victoria and New South Wales Commissions. The education and information division of Victoria’s commission illustrates [a] broad range of activities’. (Legal Action Group, A Strategy for Justice, 1992)
The online tool as yet covers only four areas – wills and estates, migration, personal injury and housing/tenancy. And the actual information given on these areas is fairly straightforward and pretty well exactly what you would expect of a well thought out website. The new bit is small but potential important. As you go into each area, you are taken through simple questions that begin to tailor the information for your particular needs. This is pretty rudimentary. For example, try housing and you are differentiated by whether you tick the box for being a tenant or a landlord. As a tenant, you get a further pretty basic choice between whether you have a neighbour dispute or any other tenancy issue. Tick for general issues and you are given a range of possibilities and potential clicks through to other websites such as the Tenants Union of Victoria for information, for example, on dealing with repair issues.
So, the site is still a long way from, say, Illinois Legal Aid Online or MyLawBC where available assistance includes various forms that you can complete yourself to further your case and you can be taken further through the resolution of your problem. But, it surely marks the small – though potentially decisive – step towards the interactive use of the internet which will be the next stage for providers of legal information and advice.
And it is particularly pleasant to hear a hint of controlled British-style understatement from Code for Australia’s announcement of its new collaboration: ‘We’re rather excited to announce the release of a new online tool to help Victorians legal help, created in collaboration with Victoria Legal Aid as part of our fellowship program.’