Illinois Legal Aid Online (ILAO) is one of the foremost legal triage sites for low income users in the US, and thereby the world. Its website has been praised already as ‘the best in the country’ by the Legal Services Corporation’s David Bonebrake. Now the organisation has come up with an idea for both improving its quality and extending involvement. The site is going ‘Wiki’.
The site is rather different from those in the UK because its genesis is more in pro bono legal services than in the advice sector. So, there is no model in Illinois – or much of the US – for the sort of AdviceNow or citizens advice site where the emphasis is on comprehensive legal information provided by a non-lawyer advice organisation but relatively little on referral outside of the sponsoring organisations’ network or, until recently at least, on the provision of self help materials. ILAO, by contrast, combines information, referral and self help assistance. Traditionally, in the UK, there has been a different background model where a potential user moves from information from a lay organisation through to advice from a solicitor in private practice (but publicly paid through legal aid) and on to full representation as required. Legal aid cuts have severed this progression. So, it may well be that, at least in England and Wales (if not Scotland and Northern Ireland where austerity has not bitten so deeply as yet), there is need for a new approach where the two comprehensive advice websites better integrate advice with self help and referral. In New South Wales and Victoria, Justice Connect’s Gateway Project reveals that it is very much following the Illinois/US model.
ILAO is bracing itself for October, pro bono month. It plans to use this to give a jolt to its ‘Edit Now’ project. This allows registered lawyers to offer edits to content on the site very much along Wikipedia lines. Registered legal aid attorneys can directly edit content: others have to submit content for approval. For them, the system puts suggested amendments into a draft with proposed changes tracked and asks the drafter to fill in a message in the ‘work log’ explaining the reason for the change. A video on the ILAO site explains the process of becoming such a ‘Legal Content Volunteer’. ILAO have managed to get a funded post for a year to oversee the project through a national volunteering project. The ILAO site gives a set of Q and As on inputting content. There is, as you would expect, an element of quality control: ‘When you hit “Save,” the Content Team receives an email. Someone will follow up with you as to whether or not your suggestions are implemented, and why.’
There are obvious difficulties in this approach as anyone who has been responsible for web content will be aware – ranging from accuracy of content to accessibility of language. ILAO has previously co-ordinated volunteers on more focused projects. For example, its Foreclosure Timeline was drawn up as a collaborative product of a group of lawyers working in its Chicago Legal Clinic. But, it is following an interesting approach. And it will be particularly interesting to see how ILAO evaluates the project. There is the potential to involve local lawyers in a new way and of building a collaborative approach to the provision of information in which a wider range of authors feel ownership. And in a way which might be copied elsewhere.
Maureen Jouhet, ILAO’s content director, website expresses her hopes, ‘The “Edit Now” button is a throwback to the early days of the Internet. We wanted to imitate the incredible collaboration that built Wikipedia from an empty page to one of the greatest information resources in the world and do it for the greater good. We’re a small nonprofit helping people who need to navigate the legal system without an attorney. The site covers hundreds of civil legal problems and keeping it current requires constant care and attention. Our staff can only do so much; our resources depend upon the ongoing contributions of subject matter expert volunteers.’