Earlier this week, the Government of Victoria responded favourably to a state-wide review of access to justice. Implementation would take it into the front rank of jurisdictions implementing an online approach to legal assistance and online dispute resolution – though there are, no doubt, some uncertainties to be resolved.
In the field of online provision, the Victorian Labour Government made the following commitments:
- to create Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) as the main online gateway to services and advice. VLA should become the main ‘entry point for information on legal issues and services in Victoria’ with an expanded website which will ‘become the primary entry point for online information about legal issues and services in Victoria. The website should feature a live web-chat service, a comprehensive service directory, other interactive diagnostic tools where appropriate, and information in a wide range of languages and in accessible formats. It should be integrated with Victoria Legal Aid’s Legal Help telephone line.’ The Legal Help telephone line supporting the website should be expanded. VLA should continue to explore the ways in which technology can support its role.
- VLA to lead online triage development on intake: ‘Victoria Legal Aid should lead work, in collaboration with other service providers, to improve referral pathways between service providers, courts, and tribunals. This work should include expanding access to online booking systems to community legal centres, improving the transparency of eligibility criteria across the legal assistance sector, and developing an online database of available services that can be accessed by service providers, courts, and tribunals.’
- Improvement to tribunals with ‘financial support to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal to fully implement the recommendations of the Tribunal’s customer service review and better utilise online technology to provide more accessible, user-focused, and responsive administrative services.’
- The creation of an online small claims court, with a commitment to establish ‘an Online Dispute Resolution Advisory Panel with terms of reference to oversee the introduction and evaluation of an online dispute resolution system for small civil claims in Victoria and make recommendations about the possible future expansion of online dispute resolution to other jurisdictions in Victoria; provide pilot funding, and, subject to evaluation, ongoing funding, for the development and the implementation of a new online system for the resolution of small civil claims in Victoria; and introduce legislation to facilitate the use of the new online system for the resolution of small civil claims.
There are some recommendations whose impact and intent are difficult for an outsider to gauge. VLA gets two more legal practitioner board members and one with experience of public administration. You might have thought that someone with a knowledge of technology would be handy. Does this reform reflect some form of trade off with the Law Society? And only a deep insider will know the deeper meaning of the Managing Director being kicked off the board and becoming a Chief Executive Officer ‘to ensure clarity of roles and reporting lines’ or, indeed, the significance of ‘The Victorian Government should seek amendments … to require Victoria Legal Aid to publicly report its expenditure and organisational performance against indicators approved by the Attorney-General (at least on a quarterly basis) to improve the transparency of its operations.’
The VLA, as one would expect, welcomed the government’s response to the review as ‘a very welcome commitment to improve access to justice for all Victorians particularly the most disadvantaged and vulnerable in our community’ though it did observe that ‘this announcement won’t solve every problem in the justice system but it certainly helps’.
The key thing is the money. The Government announced a total increase in the budget of Aus$34.7m (GBP20m, US$26m) with Aus$800,000 (GBP465,000, US$600,000) for a pilot online dispute resolution service. Attorney General Martin Pakula was expansive, “This will help break down the barriers for many Victorians, particularly those who face significant disadvantages, so they can access legal services and support when they need them … It will make our legal system fairer and more equitable with better to access to legal information, support and advice.’ . Whatever their impact, observers from England and the US would find such Victo commitment to protect access to justice comforting if it could be expressed in their own countries.