Online portals and general sources of information, advice and referral

Many jurisdictions have a lead site or sites which provides some combination of information, assistance and referral. The balance between the three functions differs which makes comparison difficult – but not impossible. This, however, is the direction in which we should go. It is notable that the last year has been characterised less by any great step forward along the lines of deploying artificial intelligence or a major move to the interactive but more by steady consolidation. Nadia, the bold Australian attempt to use IBM Watson in a sophisticated chatbot, has been canned. The Rechtwijzer is still pulling itself into a rebirth.

A site like Illinois Legal Aid Online (described by a Legal Services Commission staff member in the ABA Journal as ‘the best legal aid website in the country’) provides a model for the two pilot US state portals being developed by the commission with Microsoft. Over the last year, it has translated its content into Spanish. It  provides legal information; assistance with document self-assembly; and a referral tool powered by subject, location and tape of help sought. The referral component is high. Its point of origin is very much within the legal sector.

ILAO has a very different background from that of the Citizens Advice Service in England and Wales. The emphasis here is on information with referral largely within the Citizens Advice network alone. Citizens Advice has its origins in decidedly non-lawyer advice provision developed in the Second World War. It is now a network of 316 independent charitable (not for profit) organisations. The organisation is in the process, recorded in a blog, of revamping its public information based on a content strategy with the following characteristics which nudge forward from linear presentation toward the interactive: ‘We use normal web pages as our advice format most of the time — it’s the easiest way for people to access advice as most people come to our site after searching on Google. If an issue is more complex, we make tools or decision-trees (like our benefit checker) to help people find the right solution. Research helps us define people’s problems, and understand the language they use when they’re searching for help online.’

The Citizens Advice team has been impressively empirical. It recently tested a tool for assessing assistance with priority services. ‘To reach as many different people as possible, we decided to try pop-up research at Westfield Stratford City [a very American type of mall trendily stuck in what was, before the Olympics, desolate east London]. This is an example of what Whitney Queensbery, co-founder at the Center for Civic Design, calls ‘sampling by location’, or going where your users are. It gave us the opportunity to: test in the community rather than at the office; reach a broad range of people relatively easily; talk to vulnerable people in a familiar environment’.

Citizens Advice also provides web-based information for its own advisers – of which it has 20,000 volunteers backed up by a total of 700 employed staff – that supplements the publicly available information.  The digital team reports ‘Writing for advisers presents content design challenges that are very different to the ones we find when we write for the public. Our advisers tell us that they like: detail and context to help understand the bigger picture; to be able to find the content they need to give advice quickly; to know which external resources they can trust; appropriate technical terms — where they’re relevant’. It has experimented with different ways of presenting this information.

CLEO, Community Legal Education Ontario, demonstrates another way of providing similar levels of information to the public. It has been extending its Steps for Justice coverage throughout the year and has recently improved its design. Steps for Justice is a partnership with various institutions including the Law Society, the courts and government of Ontario. It provides ‘step-by-step information to help you work through your legal problems; practical tools, such as checklists, fillable forms, and self-help guide; referral information for legal and social services across Ontario; live chat and email support if you can’t find the answers to your questions’. Appropriate content can be copied from the central site and embedded in the website of individual organisations. The partnership adds authority though many in the NGO sector might be nervous of any threat to independence.

Back in England and Wales, advicenow.org.uk is a second general advice website. It is run by the charity Law for Life and presents itself within a public legal education framework. It is an ‘aggregator’ site which signals relevant content from other organisations. For example, if you follow its ‘top picks’ on ‘benefits claims and payments’, you get ten references to the sites of organisations ranging from the government, citizens advice, shelter and Macmillan Cancer Support. It provides a range of its own authored guides where it perceives a gap in what is available – extending to a film on representing yourself in family court and a booklet on ‘How to Win a PIP [Personal Independence Payment] Appeal’. It has supplemented this with a tool that facilitates making a successful claim for a PIP. It seems very much a site that is making sense of its position alongside Citizens Advice and looking to fill gaps.

Two further sites around the world have consolidated their position during the year. MylawBC.org has been extricating itself from its original partnership based around the Rechtwijzer. You can listen to a podcast, made last month, about the website. This takes a guided pathway approach to separation, divorce and family matters; abuse and family violence; missed mortgage payments and wills and personal planning. This allows a user anonymously to obtain customised information and a downloadable action plan or even a will through the use of interactive questioning.

Australia’s Victoria Legal Aid combines a short Q and A approach to identifying a user’s area of interest; an AdviceNow-like approach to referral towards the most appropriate organisations with a seamless link to publications and videos through a ‘legal aid checker’ in the course of development and currently operational in a beta version. It has recently added a back office facility which allows  through a system known as ORBIT (‘Online Referral Booking Information Tool’ which was discussed in the previous post.

So, overall, a year of consolidation rather than spectacular advance. The next step is surely to start the process of benchmarking best global provision in class. Which site around the world has, for example, the best referral system or the best advice on tenant housing repairs? That would both encourage developers and providers to get to know organisations in other countries working in their field and it would provide support for those that comparison indicated were the best and some competition for those who were not.

This post is an abridged and edited version of a contribution in an annual report of developments in access to justice and technology in the course of preparation. If you have any comment or criticism of the coverage or think that any other site should be covered in this section then do get in touch: rsmith@rogersmith.info

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