Triage portals – three gets challenged by four

The origin of ‘triage’, which I always took to be division into three, turns out to be the French word for selection. So, in essence, triage can be separation into any number. It is, however, often taken to be three and, in medical terms, usually signifies in an emergency situation the dying, the surviving and the treatable. The concept of triage is popular also among those concerned with legal ‘portals’, particularly in the United States, where the aim is divide users into three groups: those who will receive information and assistance only from the site; a second group who are referred to other provision and a third group deemed eligible for assistance through publicly funded provision and who enter ‘intake’. The US Legal Services Corporation’s (LSC)’s recent announcement of significant Microsoft support for two state-wide legal access portals in Alaska and Hawaii means that the development of triage sites will presumably be given a boost. As portal sites develop, there becomes an interesting issue about whether the traditional division of users into three might be better developed into four.

The LSC’s commitment to triage portals goes back to the priorities established by a Technology Summit in December 2013. This argued for:

1    Creating in each state a unified ‘legal portal’ which, by an automated triage process, directs persons needing legal assistance to the most appropriate form of assistance and guides self-represented litigants through the entire legal process

2     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

3    Taking advantage of mobile technologies to reach more persons more effectively

4    Applying business process/analysis to all access-to-justice activities to make them as efficient as practicable

5     Developing “expert systems” to assist lawyers and other services providers.

In practice, it seems that the initial emphasis in the Microsoft portals will be on two parts of the process  – intake and referral-  though the logic would also be for the development of some degree of self-help provision to meet the second of the Technology Summit’s gaols. A paradigm of this arrangement is presumably offered by a body like Illinois Legal Aid Online whose website provides all three functions (as well as marshalling pro bono).

The English and Welsh experience is somewhat different. There are national websites aimed  largely at giving legal information – and Traditionally, legal assistance was given through a network of widely dispersed legal practitioners and advice agencies.  So, the opportunities for central intake were limited. The Ministry of Justice provides a central site on eligibility but this is  now an issue of some complexity on which one might have some doubts over the reliability of government information, particularly in relation to exceptional cases for which the law makes allowance but on which the Ministry’s website is a little reticent. There are a variety of other referral sites. For example, AdviceLocal attempts to provide comprehensive referral information on advice provision in London. AdviceUK provides information on referral organisations nationally.

A number of information organisations around the world have improved their web offerings during the year. In England and Wales, the CitizensAdvice Service and in Ontario, the CLEO-led (Community Legal Education Ontario) Steps to Justice website, are going through a formal process of upgrading the accessibility of their digital information. For Citizens Advice, this involves a team working through the whole of its content with a supporting website and innovations such as publication of live statistics on usage. For ‘Steps to Justice’, it means:

comprehensive online information on common legal problems that people experience in family, housing, employment and other areas of law.

Steps to Justice:

equips people to work through their legal problems through easy-to-understand steps

includes practical tools, such as checklists, fillable forms, and self-help guides

gives referral information for legal and social services across Ontario

has live chat and email-based support for users with additional questions

The Canadian website differs from Citizens Advice in two material respects although essentially it seeks to provide the same service as a comprehensive information resource. First, it is collaborative and is designed specifically to avoid duplication by agencies –  both governmental or not for profit. Second, it contains practical self-help tools.

Back at intake, Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) has released a prototype online tool – developed with Code for Australia – for the purposes of intake triage. In this first iteration, the subject coverage is fairly limited and the content fairly shallow.  The value of the project is more in its potential than its achievement. VLA describes its tool in these terms, as an

online checker, which aims to help people who have legal problems that are considered ‘out of scope’ for VLA, meaning we are not the appropriate place for their legal problem. Our Legal Help lawyers can spend up to 5 minutes on the phone for each caller who has an issue that is out of scope for VLA. The online checker provides an alternative way for these people to get help, simply by answering questions online, while also relieving wait times for others who have issues with which VLA can help.

The most interesting provider of information on the net remains MyLawBC with its interactive Rechtwijzer-bsaed approach of taking users down ‘pathways’ towards advice that might be helpful. This is the description of the family pathway which gives some idea of how it works:

This guided pathway will help you make a plan for resolving the family law matters involved in your separation or divorce. It will give you tools and information to help you figure out if you and your spouse can work together to resolve your matters without going to court.

This pathway will give you the best available resources for your situation. It gives you a toolkit to help you understand and work on your family matters. And it gives you information on who can help you, such as professionals to help you and your spouse to work together, or where you can get legal advice.

Note: This pathway deals with what the law says about the children of your relationship. It doesn’t deal with children from previous relationships.

This pathway will take you approximately 20 minutes to complete. Your answers are anonymous. See our privacy policy for more information.

The result of all this development is that we can discern four distinct strands – not three – to the development of legal advice sites which provide some sort of structure against which we can compare them and draw out.

First, we have intake. An interesting development here may be the extension of the site not only to judging eligibility but also to providing ways of packaging client information before they are initially seen. The value of this has been demonstrated by the English product, Siaro, which facilitates the completion of an online statement by a client which then integrates via a dashboard with the information seen by the adviser and which can flag up issues to be pursued. It may well be that some of the major commercial case management systems will also develop this facility which could significantly reduce time and cost.

Second, we have referral. Integration of location from the GPS function on phones would add some useful automatic functionality to systems like AdviceLocal where you have, at present, to identify your location by borough.

Thirdly, we have information sites like CLEO in Ontario, CitizensAdvice and AdviceNow in England and Wales. These are progressing in their accessibility and clarity.

Finally, and this might be helpful as a separate category though you could also argue that it was really indistinguishable from the provision of information, we have sites like MyLawBC or  the Solution Explorer developed as the front end of British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal. These seek to keep alive the legacy of the Rechtwijzer’s attempt to provide interactive assistance not only in the provision of information about a matter but also in its resolution.

We can anticipate improvement in all four of these but the most interesting developments might come from the last because it offers the opportunity for technology to contribute the heavy lifting of dispute resolution.

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