Legal Information and Digital Delivery: a venerable Australian institution poses the questions

 The Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales has been one of the leading institutions in the global access to justice field for over 50 years. Perceptive foreign observers were heaping praise on it in the 1990s (see Legal Action Group, A Strategy for Justice, 1992 and Roger Smith, Shaping the Future: new directions in legal services, Legal Action Group, 1995). Its continuing value is amply shown in its latest offering Victoria Legal Aid: Information services literature scan. The blandness of the title belies its wider relevance. Author Sarah Randell has done a job which has lessons both in its content and its scope.

The Foundation, like any institution that has survived half a century, has undergone change. For more than 20 years, it seemed very much the personal fiefdom of its director, Terry Purcell. He implemented a range of innovative projects breathtakingly advanced for their time. After his departure, the government clipped the foundation’s wings with a reduced role and a sharp  loss of funding (it had been the major recipient of lawyer trust account monies). But, particularly under current director Geoff Mulherin, it has pulled itself back into the light with an emphasis on the quality of its research.

This report is only a literature scan. So it is limited and it follows a predictable format. There is no original research. It opens with a set of general conclusions and then provides an overview of services delivered in three countries – Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It then gives a detailed description of six pieces of research emanating from Australia, the UK, Canada and the US (an article by Margaret Hagan). One of these, I have to disclose, is the 2017-8 report on Digital Delivery of Legal Services to People on Low Incomes that I wrote for the Legal Education Foundation. So, I thought the selection was impeccable.

The purpose of the research is practical – to ‘assist [Victoria Legal Aid (VLA)] in the efficient and effective use of information service resources. VLA will use the findings to understand more about client capability and where legal information sits within their services. This understanding will help make decisions about what type of services are provided to which clients and when.’ 

The report is commendably internationalist. A table compares the provision of different information services in Australia, Canada and New Zealand. This collapses some important categories eg ‘written’ includes ‘factsheets, publications, webpages and emails. SMS services may be used, but this was not clear from a scan of the available information’. But it is extremely useful to see what different organisations are doing. 

The report concludes that three themes emerge from the literature:

1. Effectiveness 2. Barriers 3. Innovation and Technology

From these emerge a set of what are effectively hypotheses about their impact.

Legal information services:

  • may be better for being used in combination and one size may not fit all;
  • need to service both ‘self-helpers’ and those who will require other assistant;
  • need continuing evaluation and a growing evidence base.

Users:

  • may be open to segmentation – ‘the literature shows that those with lower capability are less likely to use self-help resources to resolve their problems, but are more reliant on not- for-profit legal services’.
  • face deficiencies in legal capability – with ‘barriers such as language, literacy, disability, distance, skill level and confidence’;
  • ‘Another challenge highlighted in the literature was the transformation of information received through legal information services and strategies into action for clients’;
  • there is a potential for confusing duplication and a need for more collaboration between providers.

Digital delivery raises challenges about:

  • ‘the growing digital divide or gap and the limitations of technology for more vulnerable clients’.
  • Changing experience with digital. ‘As younger, more digitally capable populations age, the uptake and effectiveness of online legal information services and strategies may increase.’
  • Best practice: ’There are various technical considerations which can improve the utility and effectiveness of online legal information services and strategies. These include (but are not limited to), search engine optimisation, user experience and interface design, the ability for interaction and customisation by users, official markers to determine a level of authority and clear jurisdictional distinctions.’

These findings now go to the commissioner of the report, VLA. And we will see what they make of them. But the Law Foundation may have done us a wider favour. As its comparative appendix makes clear, there is a much comparable experience of information delivery from different countries . What is more, it is a rapidly changing field. The foundation was looking backward – at materials published between 2013 and 2018. It could not distinguish between written and digital information –  a pretty major issue. But, there is now increasing experience and evaluation of digital and other channels. There must be a real value in taking the Foundation’s hypotheses and testing them both with current understanding around the world and with the rolling results of projects as they come in. There are some major issues here. For example (and just as examples), if you should segment users into those who can self-help at least for some problems and those who can’t, then what works best? How do we best solve the conundrum of multiple channels, multiple providers and multiple catch-points while avoiding confusing duplication? What works as an effective indicator of quality? Do users find guided pathways help them to understand content or not? Do these lead on to chatbots and open up a way for AI?

There is also the question as to whether we should segment the notion of digitalisation. Do we get a better analysis by considering legal information services under various headings? For example, is it helpful to group services by, as I am beginning to think, whether they are:

  1. provided to users in the form of information, advice, referral, do it yourself etc;
  2. deployed between, or within advisers, eg as internal ‘productivity tools’ and information exchanges;
  3. directed to the compilation of records eg of sexual harassment, housing disrepair etc;
  4. designed to help users from passively consuming information to taking action based on that information?
  5. linked in some way with those provided by others eg courts or providers like Google?

How useful it would be to hold some form of international discussion of these issues. And how good it would be in the Victoria Legal Aid or the New South Wales Law and Justice Foundation (or both) would take the lead and set up a cyber seminar with the objective of producing a set of hypotheses about what we know now and want to know in the near future. Alternatively, we could do it ourselves and, if you are at all interested then email or tweet your interest. In the meantime, it is nice to see a venerable access to justice institution still pitching (as the Americans might say) with a strong arm.

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