Legal Choices: ‘Putting you in the driving seat with your lawyer’
Legal Choices is a website jointly run by the statutory regulators of legal services in England and Wales. There are currently no fewer than eight of these, ranging from the more traditional – the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Bar Standards Board – to the more insurgent like the Institute of Chartered Accountants and the Intellectual Property Regulation Board. They jointly run a website, called https://www.legalchoices.org.uk,and they have recently dipped their toes into the waters of legal tech and access to justice, producing a report on a two day workshop run by an outside consultancy. This, rather like Legal Choices itself, raises almost as many issues as it addresses.
The conflict for Legal Choices is that it emanates from a group of, albeit well-intentioned, bureaucracies and has a government-approved function that pops up in official reports. For example, the Competition and Markets Authority recommended at the end of 2016 that ‘Revamping and promoting the existing Legal Choices website [should] be a starting point for customers needing help, information and guidance on how to navigate the market and purchase services.’ The site strengthens its empirical experience by making appropriate links and it expresses its gratitude to the Legal Services Consumer Panel, the Legal Ombudsman and the Legal Choices Advisory Panel for their input.’ That puts it in contact with the major non for profit advice providers – including the two national organisations, Citizens Advice, AdviceNow and the Law Centres Network. No mean achievement that but potentially involving a conflict of cultures.
Legal Choices is a portal site, one of whose straplines is ‘Get the facts’: ‘In this part of the website you’ll find some facts that we think matter if you think you’ve got a legal issue, as well as practical advice to help you get the support you need to sort things out. Legal Costs – find out about the options for paying for different legal services Got a legal issue? – somewhere to start in taking on all sorts of legal issues. If you want to complain – find out what do if you’re unhappy with a lawyer.’
This is all very good. And a diversity of referral options may be no bad things but there is considerable duplication here with the major advice sites in the field – like Citizens Advice and AdviceNow which have a rather more user-friendly feel and reflect a more independent source of advice. Legal Choices might be thought to take you rather too often to the government’s own websites. On contentious issues like immigration, asylum or benefits, these may, to put it neutrally, require a degree of supplementation to give a full picture.
As reported by the Litigants in Person Network ‘Over the next 18 months Legal Choices is undertaking research … to fully identify the needs of actual and potential legal service users which will culminate in the development of 4 apps or widgets – tools which could help users engage better with legal services from identifying what services are available to how much it might cost.’
An opening part of this process was a two day ‘ideation’ (alas, sometimes you feel your age) workshop which ‘took a design thinking approach to generate a large number of ideas for digital solutions for the Legal Choices website which could educate and empower users, whilst substantially increasing the number of unique visitors to the site over the next three years.’ Alterline, which ran it, has produced an interesting report of the discussion. Like the whole Legal Choices project, it is a bit of mixed bag but there was clearly a degree of freshness to the discussions held over the Manchester two days. The most frustrating criticism is probably also the most unjust. The discussion was taking place as if it was all blue skies thinking and no one had already done anything in the field. There was clearly enough post-it discussion to please any legal design theorist and the report photographs the results to prove it. It is worth reading for exactly what it is intended to be, an opening phase in a longer process.
The two day discussion looks as if it was well moderated and grounded in addressing specific issues. In particular, participants took 20 ideas for future development and sought to draw out the issues that they raised. The frustrating point is illustrated by discussion of a ‘legal starting point portal’ ie ‘A portal for users who think they might have a legal need to ask questions/find a starting point for dealing with their issues.’ Well, the issue for England and Wales may be more how to work with a number of existing portals – among them, Legal Choices, Citizens Advice and AdviceNow – rather than inventing another. In addition, we have discussion to come as to how the online small claims court will provide its promised ‘Stage 1’ – the initial identification of problems and suggestions for their resolution prior to litigation. What is more, there are lessons to be learnt from portals all round the world – not least the Legal Services Corporation’s pilots in Alaska and Hawaii being run with assistance by Microsoft. Plus, there is the issue, loosely put under the heading of ‘Sleeping with Google’ as to whether the target should really be integration with the like of Alexa and Siri. So, blue skies thinking will take you only so far towards the real issues at stake.
To be fair, there should be no reason why this project’s next phases should not incorporate national and international exploration of what is already available and being developed. If it does, then this could be really valuable. If not, it will be a bit of a waste of some rather scarce resources and an opportunity to invigorate thinking in an area which has been pretty badly hit by austerity cuts to legal aid and local funding of advice.