Seeking Legal Help Online: a must-read

Australian organisation Justice Connect has published one of the must-read reports of the year: Seeking Legal Help Online. You can consult and download it as either an executive summary or a full report. Go to the main version. It includes the summary anyway and it gives more of the sense  – and importance – of underlying process than a set of recommendations that, on their own, could seem bland. These begin with ‘invest in information design and user experience to improve outcomes’ and include ‘invest in consumer outreach, search engine optimisation, communications and marketing’. It is the detail of what these might mean and how you can carry them out – amply covered in the 100 page report – that stops the thing becoming a simplistic description of foreseeable desirables in the mould of motherhood and apple pie. This is a rich consideration of how self-help resources can be designed. It puts Australian experience front and centre of global discussion of a key topic. And, drinking its own kool aid, the report itself is really well designed. Read it to see what I mean. Some skill has gone into its preparation.

So, that is a pretty gushing assessment of content and form. What could justify it beyond the excitement of anything at all positive for a British observer oppressed by the triple whammy of Brexit, grey December weather and Covid? At the risk of repetition, you do really need to read the report itself.

But here is what I liked about it.

First, this report is based on an analysis of what might be called a market or consumer need for online resources which has been exacerbated by Covid and, for Australians, demonstrated in previous major disasters: ‘With disrupted accessibility and paths to in- person services, and Google now being the go-to for many problems in life, people are looking for legal help online.’ Limited eligibility for legal aid in Australia will be mirrored around the world: ‘only eight percent of Australian households would likely be eligible for legal aid grants, even though around 14 per cent fall under the poverty line‘. From this arises the notion of a ‘missing majority’ of those unable to afford legal assistance: a nice bit of fancy political footwork. And the central consequence is that ‘Online self-help resources are a significant part of the access to justice toolkit to deliver a solution at scale for low-to-middle income earners in the ‘missing majority’. They should be designed to augment, not replace, in-person and more intensive legal services.’

Second, the underlying project had ambitiously wide objectives: ‘In this project, we adopted a human-centred approach to:

    • Investigate and test existing legal self-help resources with help-seekers and identify elements for successful online legal self-help.
    • Uncover levels of help-seeker confidence, literacy and capability in 2020.
    • Capture some help-seeking attitudes and behaviours people have, and find out
    • if demographics, social factors, education level and culture intersect.
    • Use participatory design methods with community members to scope and design new or improved online self-help resources.
    • Identify new ways to promote legal self-help resources and reach under- serviced groups.
    • Suggest ways to reduce stigma to using self-help resources for people with legal issues.
    • Provide the legal sector with suggestions on how to support people using online self-help resources.
    • Bring a consistent, strong help-seeker voice to future work.

Third, the research methodology on design was strong. It was user-focused. In depth work was undertaken with ‘fifteen people with lived experience of legal problems involving debt or bankruptcy, employment issues, housing or tenancy, or accessing or navigating the civil justice system online’. You might argue that this was a rather small number from which to make generalisations but they did seem relatively representative. And it is very difficult to assemble larger numbers to take a really detailed look at any issue. These fifteen evaluated a number of existing resources. These included – but were not limited to – Justice Connect materials: they also included some from other Australian sources and Chicago’s Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing chatbot Rentervention. A nice international and national range.

The research team followed a number of ‘self-help journeys’ in what would now be a fairly standard way in user design. The report sets out the detail of these and indicates at each stage what assistance might be sought, preferences and emotion state. Pages 33-37. Worth a look. The big take aways seem to be the prominence of google searches and the importance of language. The blandness of the findings does not do justice to the detail:

    • Seeking help starts with Google
    • Initial search terms often describe the legal problem in everyday language
    • Some help-seekers start by looking for legislation or organisations
    • Super searchers open multiple tabs and triangulate knowledge
    • Most help-seekers pay attention to jurisdiction
    • Public resources are most trusted

Fourth, the report had some interesting findings on types of online assistance. Its message is very much that ‘different resources serve different purposes at different times’. Here is its assessment:

    • Online self-help resources are useful for common legal problems
    • People know which resources will work for them and when to use them
    • Help-seekers want to see steps and options for their situation People generally hate chatbots … until they try a good one.
    • Videos are useful but legal help-seekers don’t usually look for them.
    • Other people’s stories are not always trusted
    • There is no ‘one tool’ to rule them all but there are useful combinations.
    • People often prepare online before seeing a lawyer. 
    • Legal help-seekers want information, not fun and games.
    • Online resources help people learn legal terms and processes.

The detail was revealing. For example, ‘The reaction to chatbots was a polarising option for participants …  it elicited some of the most strongly worded negative comments. Yet many responded positively when testing the ‘Rentervention’ chatbot … in the session. The bias against chatbots is not an issue only for legal resources. Poor past experiences or no experience with chatbots led people to be skeptical that such a tool would work for them. Several participants asked what a chatbot was, when presented with this type of tool in the card sort. One kept referring to it mistakenly as “dropbox”, after initially asking “what’s a bot?”. Some people said they would never use a chatbot simply because of the name or experience.’

Fifth, the report takes a look at accessibility. It rejects a simple division of digital exclusion-inclusion. It does not really address those totally excluded by lack of digital access for whatever reason (my one potential criticism) but presents the issue as more one of degree than absolute barriers: ‘Our research has shown that people … could [largely] access online self-help resources, but many struggled to get the help they needed. Having digital access, a tertiary education, or being younger made little difference to participants’ ability or preference to use online legal self-help resources. In contrast to other research into online legal resources, we found that new migrants, people living in regional areas, and people with disabilities could use self-help resources, but design, language, and accessibility challenges made it harder or took longer to use the tool to resolve a legal issue.’ 

This puts the onus on the design of the self help material but the research had an important caveat. ‘At some point, most people would rather speak to a professional than use a tool’. And the report recognises the importance of earlier findings: ‘This does not mean online resources are irrelevant to these help-seekers. Rather, consideration should be given to the complementarity of digital resources and professional legal advice, as shown in other research on legal self-help.’ In other words, this is another recommendation for ‘blended services’ which integrate personal and automated assistance.

There was an interesting specific observation: ‘the most popular tool type was a flowchart showing options. This could be presented as a static diagram, an interactive guided pathway, or a (well-designed) chatbot. This resource type was especially, but not only, favoured by those who had not used legal services before or who were experiencing a particular kind of legal issue for the first time. When we tested a guided pathway or chatbot with people, they tended to find it most useful if it gave them options. Sometimes they might choose one option, for example, respond ‘yes’ to a question, just to see what the next screen or text box would say, only to return and provide a different answer. Others grew frustrated with these resources when they did not clearly show options or potential consequences of certain decisions and actions.’

And more than one interesting recommendation: ‘reviews of resources might increase use’. This is not easy but it would follow how people increasingly use the net for consumer information. The research pointed out that ‘At the time of writing, the home page for Rentervention actually now features ‘Recent Reviews’, which were not there at the time of testing. This may reassure some help-seekers that this is a worthwhile resource. However, one participant specified that they would not trust testimonials on the same site as the tool. They would seek independent verification from other reliable websites before trusting a chatbot like Rentervention.’

So, read this report. Judge for yourself what you make of it. Appreciate the detail. For providers of online self-help materials, this is inspiring stuff. And it focuses very practical on how things should be done. That still leaves plenty of room for a very different type of research of equal thoroughness into how people are coping in an increasingly digital environment; what devices they are using; what helps them to access digital assistance; and how digital exclusion can be shrunk. That, of course, is a wider issue for more than the legal sphere but it is pretty important in terms of developing forward policy on the integration of digital into the pre-existing pattern of legal aid and assistance

The Australian authors of this report deserve a global namecheck:Jo Szczepanska and Emma Blomkamp. 


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