One of the developing elements of access to justice assistance in the United States is the growth of statewide ‘legal portals’. These have been backed by the Legal Services Corporation, (with partners including Microsoft) which has itself funded them in Hawaii and Alaska, and a powerful foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts – which combines, like the Legal Education Foundation in England and Wales, research and funding. A comparison of activity in the US and UK raises some interesting issues.
This is how Pew defined a portal in a 2019 Fact Sheet ‘A portal is an online gateway to legal resources tailored to each user’s needs. Unlike a static website, a portal uses an interactive approach to guide users through an assessment of their legal needs and connect them to relevant information and referrals for assistance and support. To be effective, a portal must include three key elements:
Technology. A simple user interface that people can navigate on their own.
Content. Relevant, actionable information to help users research and resolve their situations.
Connection. Referrals to appropriate service providers.’
A later factsheet, published last month, lists 15 portals of this kind: Alaska Legal Navigator, www.legalnav.org (select Alaska); Connecticut Legal Help Finder, https://ctlawhelp.org/en/legal-help; Hawaii Legal Navigator, www.legalnav.org (select Hawaii); Illinois Legal Aid Online, www.illinoislegalaid.org; Pine Tree Legal Assistance (Maine), http://ptla.org/triage/me_triage; Massachusetts Legal Resource Finder, ; Michigan Legal Help, https://michiganlegalhelp.org/guide-to-legal-help; LawHelpMN (Minnesota), https://www.lawhelpmn.org/lawhelpmn-guide; Ohio Legal Help, https://www.ohiolegalhelp.org/; Legal Help Tool (Vermont), https://vtlawhelp.org/triage/vt_triage.
These are worth testing. To do this, you have to lie as to your location; select a type of problem; put yourself in one of various categories (eg Veteran or senior); and, usually have a zip code handy (they seem to work pretty well on the code for the head office of the legal services organisation which you can usually find under ‘contact us). Try it. The experience is revealing.
There are three contrasting elements to the portal approach as compared with practice in the UK.
First, there has been an emphasis on technology from the beginning. This began with the very idea of an initial digital provision. Here, it is only recently that Citizens Advice has begun developing itself beyond a physical presence provided largely by volunteers in offices. Latterly, the US interest in technology has moved into the possibilities of using artificial intelligence, particularly to help identify issues. In January 2019, Pew produced a specific factsheet specifically on ‘how artificial intelligence could improve access to justice’. Thus, there has been an interest in natural language processing – with teams at Suffolk and Stanford Universities particularly working on this issues. These ‘have collected thousands of online questions about possible legal issues to start developing a data set that can serve to train a natural language processor (NLP)—a subset of AI focused on understanding context in speech. An NLP could recognize that people who seek information online about getting “kicked out” of their rental property, without using the legal term “eviction,” need insight into eviction law.’ o
Linked to this is Spot ‘a computerized issue spotter. Give Spot a non-lawyer’s description of a situation, and it returns a list of likely issues from the National Subject Matter Index [NSMI], version 2′. This ‘provides a centralized, comprehensive taxonomy of topics for the legal aid community by which documents and data can be indexed.’ In other words, you might begin by telling the system that you are being kicked out of your flat and end up allocated to the precise section of the index covering this issue and which can then lead on to the automatic provision of the most precisely relevant information. Spot, like any good dog (for whom, like any good grandparent, I spend a lot of time looking) can be traced – in its case by machine learning and AI – to improve its performance.
By contrast, you can sit and watch the queries come and go in real time on the Citizens Advice site. Most seem pretty understandable at first go and as summarised – without, presumably AI assistance. In time, it would be useful for someone to do a comparative study of relative effectiveness of putting this energy into an AI approach.
Second, the US legal portals have followed a more interactive approach to assistance than in the UK. As Pew records this function, they ‘initiate guided interviews or a series of questions that prompt the user with refining questions to clarify the issue and generate more tailored responses. For example, the Minnesota LawHelpMN portal would present a user who asked about divorce with a series of questions—such as “Do you have children in the marriage?”—to generate responses that target the user’s specific needs and legal issues.’ This takes one more towards the Rechtwijzer-influenced guided pathway where general information can be tailored into individualised advice (something which would be unproblematic in the UK but less so in the US). This seems the most positive lesson for us. Citizens Advice and AdviceNow are moving towards this approach but there is fair way to go. And we would gain immensely from looking at US experience with active assistance in the self completion of forms and documents. This must present one of the biggest opportunities for us to use technology to improve access to justice and the US is bursting with good examples to follow.
Linked to this is the great variety of material available on the portal sites which seek to ‘deliver relevant legal information through multiple formats, such as text and video, that help users understand more about their legal issues. The Michigan Legal Help portal, for example, directs users seeking information on home foreclosure to a foreclosure prevention toolkit that includes self-help videos and links to relevant court forms, a checklist of property tax credits, and other materials.’
Thirdly, the portal sites have been developed to perform the key function of triaging entry into subsidised services and referring those ineligible. So, there is an emphasis on referral missing from much domestic equivalent provision: the portals ‘Make referrals to legal and social services so users can contact organizations or access other resources that can help them with their legal issues. The Massachusetts Legal Resource Finder, for instance, connects eligible users to their local legal aid office. And because legal issues often occur in conjunction with other problems, some portals offer even more opportunities for support. The Ohio Legal Help portal, for example, connects users to health and social services, such as local food banks.’
This comprehensiveness of approach poses a challenge for the UK where services are more compartmentalised. That, in turn, provides us with the challenge of how we co-ordinate stages of a process which will seem natural to the user but involve closing various institutional boundaries.
So, we have two jurisdictions with similar needs but different histories and varying approaches.There must be fertile ground surely for comparative lesson-learning. Somebody on one side or other of the Atlantic could surely put together a good project doing exactly that.