With the formal launch of its Gateway pro bono portal, Australia’s JusticeConnect establishes itself as a world-leader in access to justice digital innovation. For those working in the same field, it becomes, depending on their orientation (and, let it be admitted, possibly gender), either a major source of inspiration or the one to beat. It will provide an interesting comparison to Illinois Legal Aid Online’s equivalent – Get Legal Help Online – and the US Legal Navigator pilots in Hawaii and Alaska.
JusticeConnect is an Australian pro bono organisation whose members are law firms, corporate legal departments, community legal centres and even Law Societies and Bar Associations. It is based in Victoria and New South Wales. Its co-operation during the project with other organisations and the iterative approach it adopted has been impressive by itself. The Gateway has been sponsored jointly by a range of foundations, commercial organisations (including Google), law firms and government bodies. It was built on the basis of 28 co-design workshops and with 14 law firms willing to participate in a pilot. As JusticeConnect’s Kate Fazio makes clear in an earlier interview, the organisation has put time into looking at what else was happening around the world, particularly in the US. And JusticeConnect clearly hopes to play an international role in developing services: its website states that it is ‘in conversation with a number of international stakeholders interested in investigating the potential of using the portal in their jurisdiction.’ That has it following in the Rechtwijzer tradition of looking for extra-extra-jurisdictional sales.
The aim of the Gateway is to take a quantum leap forward in the business of being a pro bono clearing house: ‘Our bold vision is that Justice Connect will be accessible for people needing help, for workers that want to find the right help for their clients, and for organisations that need help for themselves. We will have guided online entry points that make understanding our services and whether we can help clear and easy. Applying for the help of a lawyer will be quick and transparent. Technology will help us leverage pro bono too. With better systems tracking availability and interest within our pro bono network, we can allocate matters efficiently and help more lawyers contribute pro bono work more easily. Our pro bono lawyers will be able to actively search unplaced matters when they have capacity to take on extra pro bono work.’
The Gateway itself is a composite of three related services: ‘The … cornerstone products are: an intelligent online intake and triage tool to help people quickly and easily understand whether they are eligible for our services, and make a full application online; a referral tool to help our sector colleagues understand when we can help, and easily warm-refer clients deep into our system, reducing referral drop-out; a pro bono portal to revolutionise the way we work with our network of 10,000 pro bono lawyers, ensuring we’re making the most of their capacity, and connecting them more efficiently, transparently and effectively with unmet legal need.’
The intake tool ‘has two key components: a program sorter, and program specific questions. The program sorter asks users seven questions, with which it is able to determine which services a help-seeker should apply for at Justice Connect. The key aim of our Program Sorter is to connect eligible help-seekers with the right Justice Connect Program as quickly as possible, and to inform help-seekers if they are ineligible as early as possible.’ During the pilot period, it became clear that this was allowing a considerable reduction in time taken for this function (10 minutes on average against 40 on the phone). The tool also allows much better information collection.
The two other components are ‘a referral tool to help our sector colleagues understand when we can help, and easily warm-refer clients deep into our system, reducing referral drop-out’ And the prob bono portal will ‘revolutionise the way we work with our network of 10,000 pro bono lawyers, ensuring we’re making the most of their capacity, and connecting them more efficiently, transparently and effectively with unmet legal need.’
Someone or some group in JusticeConnect is responsible for the high level of its communications and the design of its website. Its promotional material just tempts you to top and tail and send out as your own work – particularly if you are a hard-pressed grandfather in half term week. But there is a seductive danger in that. We need to know how good is the actual product. There are two structural limitations which are, in no way, JusticeConnect’s fault. First, the content is based around the areas of law and geography for which it actually has a mandate. It would be much better if it was comprehensive but that is, I recognise, a major domestic issue that could stir up all sorts of rivalries. But, at the moment, coverage might strike a user as a bit hit or miss. I tested it with an invented problem (private sector threatened eviction) which was not immediately covered – though I could have logged it and got a reply. Second, the system does what it is designed to do – assist pro bono referral. From a user’s perspective, the next step would be to integrate referral with the kind of initial advice that you can get from citizensadvice.org.uk and more self-help materials.
Finally, Gateway seems so well designed that it cries out for evaluation and comparison with other attempts to do the same thing. JusticeConnect would have nothing to fear from that and everybody else would have an awful lot to gain.