Digital advice: asking the right questions

Not for profit advice providers can be as conservative as any other providers of legal services. Fighting, as they are in most jurisdictions, to deliver legal assistance at a time of escalating demand and diminishing resources, scepticism of the potential assistance of technology is pretty understandable. That makes a London law centre’s openness to digital innovation the more heartening. Good for Hackney Law Centre’s commissioning of Finding Better Problems for Better Solutions: digital insights for Hackney Advice Centre. The paper shows an interest in innovation, all the more commendable for the stresses faced by all domestic law centres at this time.

The report came out of the work of a consortium of advice organisation in the London Borough of Hackney – an area to the north east of London which combines areas of substantial wealth and gentrification within others of considerable poverty. The strength – and weakness – of the report is its local basis. The consultancy that produced the report, Social Spider, considered provision from a borough perspective rather than a national one.  The latter would have involved consideration of the role of national agencies and institutions such as the Citizens Advice Bureaus, national websites like, private practice lawyers and law centres. By contrast, this report takes the local as its focus.

Social Spider undertook a range of workshops with service providers and users within the Borough. Conversations with advice seekers came up with interesting observations on the potential role of digital delivery. They included:

  • ‘Received wisdom  about who does and does not use digital devices is worth questioning. As is the assumption that it is only the person with the problem who can be enabled by digital, rather than the broader community around that person.’
  • ‘If accepting the need for advice is challenging and status challenging; the digital device as a private space to explore first is potentially important. We often google physical symptoms before seeking medical help …’
  • ‘People are looking for advice about the ways the things really work; something different from broad but shallow information about the way things are intended to work. This illustrates why ‘people don’t just google it’: they want something more than just information’.
  • ‘All mediums work for some people and not others. Digital is no different.’

The project came up with five proposals for more examination:

1. Some system of answering questions by email – perhaps using pro bono volunteers through the law centre.

2. ‘An app or online service that helped those receiving advice services to note the advice that they were being given, help construct to-do lists and agendas …’

3. ‘An app that would sit o the device of an individual, which would be available when called up to provide a way of working out which advice service would be best for someone else … this would be an app who wanted to be able to give others the best advice about where to seek help’.

4. A digital triage app or website that signposted the correct agency for a particular problem – something which is a goal of the Legal Services Corporation in the US.

5. A pre-appointment provision which would prompt someone coming to an interview about what documentation is necessary. This is close to the idea behind a product like Siaro which is discussed below and which is designed to speed up the initial consultation.

Hackney Law Centre has now proceeded to run its own Hackathon to develop some of these ideas. But, whatever the answers may be (and they are likely to vary according to different circumstances), the question about the value of the digital must be right. This local discussion needs to be paralleled at a national level.

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