Another country; another way

The US Legal Services Corporation is promoting a blog which tracks progress on one of its key technology projects – access to justice portals for two contrasting states, Hawaii and Alaska, which will hopefully serve as a model for others. The project is a partnership with Pro Bono Net (which is what you expect: a national resource on legal pro bono) and Microsoft. An early video on the blog site provides some of the background. This is clearly an important project for the US – the LSC has long promoted statewide portals of this kind and it clearly wants to provide a model demonstration of what can be done. For those outside the US, it is interesting to think through what might be the lessons.

What is interesting to a British observer is that the LSC is starting from a different place from what would feel natural in the UK. The details of the project are still being worked out. ‘Ideation workshops’ (sometimes you can feel very European) were held in January in both Alaska and Hawaii. The basic idea is clear enough – to create a digital ‘legal access platform to help people find the right resources to resolve their legal issues in their state. The goal of the initiative is to enable everyone with a civil legal problem to access the right form of assistance for their needs.’ So, the emphasis is on putting users in touch with resources. These will presumably include those which are website-based – like our citizensadvice.org.uk or AdviceNow. But, the focus seems to be more on directing users to through the range of advice and other provision which is available, presumably with particular reference to pro bono projects – of which the United States has a proliferation and a historically greater reliance than in England and Wales (though this may change for us with the growing impact of the legal aid cuts).

One of the interesting things for foreigners will be the methodology introduced by Microsoft for looking at need: the workshops used findings from ‘user immersion studies conducted in the fall 2017 in Alaska and Hawaii. Using a toolkit developed by Microsoft, local community engagement firms in each state conducted surveys and interviews of individuals who had experienced legal needs themselves or knew people who had. The user immersion studies helped us gain a more personalized understanding of the problem space, the people we are trying to help, and the challenges they face in learning about and navigating the legal system.’ The Alaskan project, in particular, had an impressively wide range of participation which included ‘representatives from the Alaska Court System and Justice for All project, Alaska Legal Services Corporation, United Way / 211, the Alaska public library system and the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium.’

So, if we were to decode this for a domestic audience, it is presumably a similar sort of exercise in some ways to that conducted back in the day (we are talking late 1980s, so long ago that the records have not been digitalised and you have to go to the government’s physical repository of information at Kew to get the records) where regional legal services committees (led by that in the North West) conducted surveys of provision and sort to scope a map of what exists and facilitate co-ordination. The difference is what can be added by digital; by an ‘inclusive design’ methodology; and Microsoft’s resources and experience. The Alaskan and Hawaiian workshops ran for two days: ‘The first day of each workshop drew on personal stories shared by … individuals to prioritize key user needs and wants in the Legal Access Platform. During the second day, designers from Fell Swoop, a user experience design firm, assisted small groups in storyboarding examples of how people might access the Platform and engage with resources available on it to find solutions to their legal problems.’

It will be worth looking at how Microsoft influences the underlying survey of need. There is a chance here for a development of the approach developed from the work of Professor Hazel Genn’s groundbreaking ‘Paths to Justice’ survey; the 2006-9 Civil and Social Justice Survey developed from it and used by the Legal Services Board in its study of Individual Consumer Needs; and the Ipsos Mori research funded by the Law Society which reported in 2016. Professor Genn’s study sparked a series of repetitions with variations around the world from Scotland to Canada. An overall study published in 2013 observed that ‘Since the mid-1990s, at least 26 large-scale national surveys of the public’s experience of justiciable problems have been conducted in at least 15 separate jurisdictions, reflecting widespread legal aid reform activity. Twenty-four of these surveys fall within a growing Paths to Justice tradition, having firm roots in, and following the structure of, Genn’s landmark survey in England and Wales.’

A second issue will be how the US sites balance referral and self-help resources. A US site like Illinois Legal Aid Online provides information, self-help forms and referral in a way which is rather more comprehensive as to services than anything here but less comprehensive in information as compared with citizensadvice.org.uk.  But well functioning integrated sites in the US could be a powerful stimulant to adopting a wider approach here.

On referral, there is the chance, with geo-location, for Microsoft to add specificity to geographical referrals. A user can be referred to a nearby project; told its opening times; and offered a direct link to take their matter further. It will be interesting to see how the US sites manage to keep their data up to date. Large numbers of small organisations with constantly shifting services make any centralised referral network a nightmare. Here, you would have to blend the centralised referral available through services like advicelocal.uk and citizensadvice.org.uk with other groupings such as solicitors offices, members of the Law Centres Network and other advice agencies. It is going to be hard to avoid central resources for pulling this together plus there will be a need for a lot of goodwill on the ground with commitment to the task of keeping a centralised ledger of resources.

The final point will be how well the project can pull together those outside the narrow legal services world. The list of those engaged in Alaska is impressive in this regard. We would need to return to the broader version of legal services of the old legal services committee days. At a national level, we would probably have to espouse some form of responsible body with a considerably wider remit than the Legal Aid Agency and much more along the lines espoused by the Evans review in Scotland for a Scottish Legal Assistance Authority.

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