Activists Speaking 8: Sherry MacLennan of MyLawBC

I began my career by wanting to be a veterinarian. I have a bachelor of science from the University of Saskatchewan. I then took a law degree. I wanted to be an environmental lawyer but there were few opportunities. A particularly bad winter in Saskatchewan got me down and I decided to move to more temperate BC. I spent a few years in private practice. And then, 19 years ago, there was an opening at the Legal Services Society.  I worked in family law clinic for a bit and then took up an administrative opportunity to set up a family counsel programme. This was born out of the cuts to our previous more generous family law coverage that took place in 2002-3. Those really reduced our full service family coverage to just covering cases with domestic violence and, even then, with only limited assistance.

Family coverage has expanded a little since then but has never gone back to the full coverage of 2002. Because of that, we started to look online at technology that could provide self help. Our first step was the development of the Family law in BC website, which has become the most used family site in BC. It had 815,000 users last year. This began with a focus on DIY applications and expanded in scope to include more and more information. It was redesigned this year to be much more user friendly. This was a co-design process with users. The result is much more accessible. We  plan to add more video. We are rewriting to be more approachable. We are changing the tone. It was legal, dry and authoritative. We know that people want authority but also something which is warmer and encouraging. We are creating greater engagement and adding lightness using storytelling techniques through cartoons, which have user tested very well. The other thing that we heard was that users are under high amount of stress. They want practical advice on managing it. So we have incorporated wellness tips in the website. Things like how to relax. People are much more aware of that now. 

We were very inspired by  the work of Margaret Hagan and the principles of legal design. We came up with  a list of ten principles to guide development of the website. We worked in coordination with an agency very familiar with Hagan’s work and also familiar with principles developed in the UK. We wanted to tailor principles for our use and get buy in from our team of designers.

Around 2013, we started to hear about the Dutch Rechtwijzer through the participation of our chief executive officer, Mark Benton, in the International Legal Aid Group. One of our managers also went to the Legal Services Commission Technical Initiatives Grants conference and brought the 2013 Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice report back. As result, we presented a paper talking about using technology in different way. The Law Foundation of BC announced a competitive grant process and asked people to look at creating a large website. We looked closely at the Rechtwijzer and developed a grant application to the Foundation but, unfortunately, it cancelled the process. Our board, however, were so excited by the idea that they directed us to find internal funding. 

We did a request for proposals in BC. It was perhaps hard for people to understand what we wanted. I went to the Netherlands a couple of times. We ended up in partnership with HiiL and a US firm, Modria, who produced the interactive dialogue tool on MyLawBC. We began the process in 2014 and launched 18 months later in early 2016.

We have made a few changes in response to user testing, but nothing substantial. Modria was taken over by Tyler Technologies and are still involved. We contracted with them to provide ongoing support for the dialogue tool which supplements the advice pathways. The technology is now getting old. We are going to roll out and launch a Family Law Resolution Centre later this month in partnership with Tyler, using their Modria platform. We are going to provide online dispute resolution – focusing to begin with on parenting issues. If couples get stuck, they can request an online mediator who will be provided for up to five hours and will work to generate a parenting plan. We probably have a lot to learn in this process from mediators and lawyers that mediate who are supporting us. We would like, in time, to add the other family issues so that we eventually cover all issues. Our aim is to help low income people where there is no violence, or in places across the province where there is no in person mediation for low income people. We are the first organisation across Canada to offer this kind of free service.

We have recently published two independent research reports on MyLawBC. The most important finding may be that we need to add something to explain what we are doing. A significant number of users are not completing the pathway. They don’t understanding that there is going to be tailored information at the end. It works for some. But there is a significant number of people expecting a traditional website.

The site was written for English speakers. The intention was to do so at the level of grade 6. The action plans are all written at grade 6 and the pathways at around the same level. We have got some work to improve our content. Even though the users were identified as having high level of education, they still want it simpler. The reason is not clear – do people over-report their level of proficiency or do they just need it more simple? We are glad that the research confirms that we were reaching an audience of low income people. 

One issue from the research was Search Engine Optimisation with which we were familiar from the family law website. We should improve this. It was not top of our interest when designing it. The report made good suggestions for better analytics. We need to measure more. We need to take time to measure what is important. 

An important observation that came out of the research is the need for a common matrix for evaluation of websites and the need to share common learning. 

We are interested in using technology as a means of empowerment along the lines of UN goal sustainable goal 16 for access to justice. MylawBC is one way in which to help people solve their problems. We want to develop this and to look at develop scripts to help people going to court. In BC, justice system supports are becoming more and more fragmented. Technology should help individuals and service providers navigate the landscape to find the right services. We need to maximise the ability to connect people to the right tool, service or lawyer for their particular issue, and figure out how you bring the right pieces together. People need people, not just technology, and we need to know how do you make the best use of their face to face time.  For the future, we are putting together a proposal to do research on digital divide in BC, and asking what role we have in helping people to overcome it and making sure we design appropriate services.

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