A taxonomy for technology: ‘today we have naming of parts’ – an excellent Engine Room Report

The Open Society Justice Initiative and The Engine Room have done a brilliant job by respectively commissioning and writing Technology for Legal Empowerment: a global review. The authors have sought to list and categorise as much provision around the world as they could (the subject of this post). They also have useful observations on how organisations might go about using technology (the subject of a later one). But, today, in the words of a poem that has always been one of my favourites: ’We have the naming of parts’ – the classification of provision.

Categorisation is important. If we can get that right, it will help in understanding a range of otherwise rather disparate initiatives. And, if the categorisation of global initiatives is robust enough then we can debate which products are the best in their class. We thus have a goal to emulate or, for the more competitive, to beat. After all, access to justice organisations cannot afford to spend (or waste) the kind of sums that are wagered without much thought in the commercial sector.

The report contains a pretty comprehensive ‘global scan’ of resources listed by region: Asia, Australasia, Europe, Middle East, Latin America, North America and Sub-Saharan Africa. There are four detailed case studies: Themis or PLP 2.0 in Brazil, Lawyers4Farmers in Uganda, MyLawBC in Canada and Haqdarshak in India. If you want to know the current state of developments, this (combined with the HiiL website) is where you need to go.

The Engine Room structures its report around the idea of legal empowerment – a particular approach to the provision of legal services. This ‘is concerned with strengthening the capacity of all people to exercise their rights’ and ‘explaining to people how the law affects them on a day-to-day basis, improving their ability to access formal justice systems, and empowering people to change the law’. It is not necessarily different from a ‘legal services’ or ‘legal aid’ approach but it has a slightly different emphasis. Dialogue between the two goes back decades: it was, for example, rampant in English law centres in the 1970s. Do you help people to take action themselves or do you deploy the best resources possible to work on their behalf? For the purposes of categorisation of technology, we can duck this well honed discussion by looking for categories that will cover both approaches. But the broader approach may explain why the categories below build on those suggested by the Engine Room but differ from them in some respects.

The two elements on which it seems reasonable to categorise digital provision in the access to justice field are, first, the group to which that is the primary target and, second, the primary purpose of the provision. On that basis, my own typology would be that we can distinguish five types of technology that are primarily directed at ordinary people as users – though they can, in turn, be subdivided. These (very similar to the analysis in the Engine Room report but not quite identical) are:

  • technology directed to helping users to identify legal problems and to resolve them through the provision of information and advice (information sites);
  • technology directed to users and intended to refer them to sources of appropriate assistance (referral sites);
  • technology directed to users and intended to help resolve legal problems through assistance in document assembly (document assembly provision);
  • technology directed to users that facilitates the collection of evidence to build a legal case (evidence-building sites);
  • technology directed to users that facilitates the resolution of a legal problem through interactive dialogue (eg online mediation sites).

In practice, of course, the boundaries between these different types are porous and, for example, the US planned Legal Navigator pilots in Alaska and Hawaii or Illinois Legal Aid Online seek to integrate different approaches. There are other uses of technology for access to justice context but let us leave for the moment technology primarily directed at service providers (such as customer relationship management systems) or to facilitate their work (such as creating online communities of advisers like rightsnet.org.uk].

To give a flavour of the Engine Room analysis, let’s look just at the content on information provision. The vast bulk of information is provided through what the Engine Room calls ‘static sites’. These are ‘Online information sources, targeted at non-lawyers, which display legal information in a ‘static’ form that is not tailored to the needs of a specific user.’ These can come in various forms including:

The report recognises the power of static sites but cautions – ‘solely placing legal information online does not necessarily mean that users will be able to use it more easily. Our research found that static sites could do more to present information in easily digestible, attractive formats that are accessible on mobile devices as well as desktop computers.’

A development from static sites are those using guided pathways. These seek to structure the information to the users’ need: ‘Guided pathways to legal information ask users a series of questions that help them refine, define or select the legal issue they are facing, and then provide them with information that is tailored to their needs.’ MyLawBC is an example. So are the lists directing users to information used by Illinois Legal Aid Online. 

A small number of information sites supplement their information with a live chat facility which ‘allows individuals to ask questions directly to an adviser with legal training, who responds in real time.’ Examples are citizensadvice.org.uk. and LawHelpNY. 

The report also considered the role of chatbots which ‘provide information in the style of a direct-messaging chat interface, with an automated flow of questions and answers determined by conditional logic’. The researchers were a little underwhelmed: ‘Most access to justice-focused chatbots we found did not structure information in the form of a conversation in which users type questions and receive answers. Instead, they asked users to select from a set of buttons that lead them through a process based on conditional logic. This makes them similar to the guided pathways above, although the language used by some chatbots adopts a more personal and conversational tone’. 

Referral sites can come in various shapes and sizes. The report looks at ‘guided pathways to specialised legal advisers’: ‘These services ask users to define their problem before presenting them with information on organisations or individuals such as pro bono lawyers, non-profit organisations or lawyers who can provide further support. In some cases, this is combined with legal information …’ These can  be pretty basic like Pakistani Lawyer which lists lawyers of Pakistani extraction practising in the US by state and specialism – one step beyond a simple Bar Association/Law Society list. CitizenshipWorks combines an online US citizenship application with referral  and describes itself as ‘a free online service that helps you apply for citizenship, step-by-step. We will tell you about any potential problems with your application and connect you to the expert help you need, either online or in person. We also tell you what other documents you need to submit, and what to expect after you apply.’ A further variant is provided by  Australia’s Justice Connect which ‘helps a person explain their problem and match them with a Justice Connect service or self-help tool. In the case of a service, it also helps the user make a guided online application for assistance. This way, the tool is an example of a combination of guided diagnostic, intake … triage’ and facilitates what is known in the trade as a ‘warm referral’.

So, add in coverage of assisted document assembly and some analysis of modes of delivery, and this is an excellent contribution to the categorisation of provision which is well presented and easy to read. It draws practical lessons from the development of technology which will be discussed later. In the poem from which the subtitle of this post is taken, the drill instructor competes with the attractions of spring, the hum of bees and the indifference of his recruits by promising that ‘… tomorrow morning, We shall have what to do after firing.’ The equivalent will be seeing how we can use generally accepted categories to make discriminating judgements about different provision. 

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