Access to justice and interactive digital provision

One of the most promising developments in online advice provision is the gradual exploration of the interactive possibilities of the internet. A number of advice websites – such as Victoria Legal Aid’s Legal Checker– now incorporate elements of Q and As to narrow down relevant areas of information which are then given in familiar linear fashion.

Document Self Assembly

An early form of interactivity was provided by document self-assembly programmes. These have been particularly important in the US and led, in the access to justice/legal services field, by the A2J Author developed by Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Centre for Access to Justice and Technology whose:

document assembly projects are made up of two components: a user friendly interface, called an A2J Guided Interview, and a back end template. These A2J Guided Interviews take complex legal information from legal forms and present it in a straightforward way to self-represented litigants.

A2J Author is supplemented by the work of an NGO, Law Help Interactive, a Pro Bono Net project, which provides assistance both to users and to lawyers. Its assessment of the need for, and role of online forms is discussed by Program Manager Claudia Johnson in three recently released podcasts.

The US Legal Services Corporation was early on to the issue of self-assembly forms and their encouragement has been part of its policy since its Technology Summit in 2013 which resolved that ‘Deploying sophisticated document assembly applications to support the creation of legal documents by service providers and by litigants themselves and linking the document creation process to the delivery of legal information and limited scope legal representation’.

A  number of commercial providers have also entered the field – notably Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom. The quality of these, at least in the commercial field, has attracted some criticism: ‘At the bottom end of the market, you have the likes of LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer. Based on what I’ve looked at, what they have to offer is dreadful. And you have to pay for it. See LegalZoom’s Business Contracts: Commoditizing Mediocrity and Rocket Lawyer? Contract Automation FAIL.’

The UK has followed into the self assembly field with caution. CourtNav, however, is very similar to projects fuelled by A2J author – without the visuals. It is an online tool developed by a specialist Citizens Advice Service office in the Royal Courts of Justice (the central civil courts of England and Wales). The system has now been taken up by the whole Citizens Advice office and can be accessed from local offices. It relies on pro bono lawyers to check the self-assembled documents.

Two organisations have demonstrated the capacities of self assembly in helping users to structure social security claims – in their case, a form of benefit called a personal independence payment. Both AdviceNow and SeAp, an NGO based in the south coast town of Hastings, have developed a checklist approach to building up a claim and then compiling the different elements together. The C-App website supports the user (with a promotional video explaining the app) to build up the kind of detail that is required for a medical assessment by detailing issues under twelve headings ranging from ‘washing and bathing’ or ‘dressing and undressing’. AdviceNow takes a similar approach to facilitating the building up of the Mandatory Reconsideration Request Letter Tool available on its website. Both of these are trying to add a degree of guidance and structure to a self assembly programme in a way that would seem to have interesting possibilities.

Guided Pathways

The Dutch Rechtwijzer was a trailblazer in a number of ways – partly in its integration of mediation within an online process – but initially in its use of guided pathways. These have the potential to change the presentation of advice and information. Instead of screeds of information on the screen, interactive questioning allows information to be presented to the user in bite sized chunks addressed to their personal need. In England and Wales, it is still possible that Relate may resurrect a guided pathway approach to dealing with family separation.

The current leader in the field is MyLawBC which offers pathways through four areas of law – family, domestic violence, missed mortgage payments and wills and personal planning. MyLawBC was originally built by the Rechtwijzer team but it has been re-organising its back office since its demise. MyLawBC now has the capacity to write its own modules. So, we should expect more shortly.

One of the most interesting interactive developments remains another BC project, the Solution Explorer developed by British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal (the online court element of which is discussed later). This – from June last year – added a small claims jurisdiction to its initial coverage of ‘strata disputes’, a type of housing dispute.  There are now two Explorers, one for strata disputes and one for small claims which is, in turn, divided into seven parts from, in alphabetical order, ‘buying and selling goods and services’ to ’property’. These tale you through a few Q and As – with a marker at the side of the page indicating additional resources and telling you how far you have got through the process. You are taken down a logic tree or guided pathway; a sidebar tells you how far you have got; you can save your work and return; you come across summaries of the relevant law; opportunities for referral; and draft letters.  As useful as any verbal description in understanding the process is the CRT’s three minute youtube video . Without the programme taking sides, the user is being guided into handling their own case and exploring options which will include, but not be limited to, court processes.

Legal Health Check Ups

One potential use of interactivity is in digitalising ‘legal health check ups’. This idea has been around for some time and, before the internet, consisted of offering people a questionnaire to check on their legal needs. This is an obvious candidate for digitalisation and the newly created American Bar Association Centre for Innovation has announced that ‘Currently in development is a free, online legal checkup tool that is being created by a working group led by the ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services. The checkup will consist of an expert system of branching questions and answers that helps members of the public to identify legal issues in specific subject areas and refers them to appropriate resources.’ An example can be found on the net from Halton Community Legal Services in Ontario. Since it was published in 2014, this claims 2898 surveys completed,1089 requests for legal advice and 1017 requests for legal information. The ABA digital initiative follows a longstanding interest in the possibilities of legal check ups with discussion of whether their use could integrate public and private provision.

Chatbots

There is considerable interest in the potential of interactive chatbots. The Australian Nadia programme was going to be the most sophisticated use of this in the access to justice field as a visual interface with the public on a new disability scheme. It was canned because, for all its marketing, IBM Watson, which proclaims itself at the cutting edge of Artificial Intelligence actually proved to be too slow and too lacking in power. And that is a warning against too much hype.

One of the leading proponents of the possibilities of chatbots has been the young entrepreneur, still a student at Stanford, Joshua Browder. He has achieved major publicity for his ‘Do Not Pay’ bot that challenges parking tickets; and has very publicly expanded his operation to asylum cases and those affected by the Equifax security scandal. He stated his hope that ‘my product will replace lawyers, and, with enough success, bankrupt Equifax.

There can be no doubt that chatbots have fantastic potential as they get more sophisticated. And a distant holy grail of at least some in the legal services’ movement would be integration of legal advice into commercial services provided through Echo, Siri or Alexa. This will only get more important as the potential of the technology expands. For the moment, for all the claims that the British-based Billy Bot can replace barristers’ clerks by managing their diaries and even making the coffee, bots remain pretty basic. Most rely not actually on any sophisticated artificial intelligence but on quite more mundane and unsophisticated guided pathways with a verbal front end. They may promise advances in administration – and are already widely used in customer service throughout a number of industries – but that does not get near to replacing lawyers as Mr Browder hopes.

Conclusion

Chatbots may provide a healthy warning on the potential of interactivity as a whole. But, if hype and oversell can be avoided then there seems a lot further that we can go in exploring its potential. And the failures of Nadia and the Rechtwijzer should not be allowed to overshadow the approach as a whole.

This is an edited and abridged version of part of an annual report on technology and access to justice being written for the Legal Education Foundation. Any comments can, for the next couple of weeks at least, be accommodated within the final draft. Write to rsmith@rogersmith.info.

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