Activists Speaking 7: Catrina’s Story – Catrina Denvir, Researcher

I am an empirical researcher in the field of legal services, technology and access to justice. I spent the last few years in Belfast as Director of the Legal Innovation Centre at Ulster University and am about to return to my native Australia to take up a position as Senior Lecturer at Monash University.

I originally studied political science and history at the University of Melbourne. Thinking that I might pursue a career in the public sector, I undertook further study in public policy and travelled to Timor Leste after UN withdrawal to conduct qualitative research into government corruption. 

I’ve always had an interest in law, probably because I watched too much Ally McBeal growing up. On a whim I decided to apply to study it at Cambridge. To my surprise I was accepted. Since then my philosophy (in life and research) has always been to ‘ask the question even if you think you know the answer’.  Studying law extinguished my interest in the subject but improved my writing. I remain highly suspicious of people who claim that they enjoyed their law degree.

The financial crash coincided with my graduation year. Ironically, I got a job at Goldman Sachs monitoring world events where I lasted less than a week. I was not a good fit for the corporate surveillance culture. This seemed to fixate on the trivial (did you take your phone and pager into the toilet with you? Did you take a full lunch break? Were you at your desk early and did you leave late?) and ignore the significant (Did you have any clue what you were doing? Had your actions just crashed the global economy? Were you only in it for your bonus?). After that I job hopped for a bit – working as a temp receptionist at different law firms, in retail, night shelf-stacking at supermarkets, tutoring students and generally being aimless. Then a job came up at the Legal Services Research Centre. It seemed a perfect alignment of my interests and qualifications and I started there in early 2009. 

The job was an opportunity to learn as much or as little as I wanted. I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by experts willing to nurture my interests and share their knowledge. I studied statistics and data analysis very intensively and used the opportunity to further develop my skills in quantitative and qualitative research. The civil and social justice survey had just added some questions on how people responded to technology. As a teenager my parents gifted me a dial-up internet connection for my birthday one year. I vividly remember how excited I was to have such a vast amount of information (appear slowly) at my fingertips. The technology angle of access to justice interested me and I turned my attention to this area of research. 

Eventually I went on to complete my PhD on the use of technology to resolve civil justice problems at University College London. My research concluded that while the Internet holds potential as a Public Legal Education (PLE) tool, exposure to online legal information does not directly equate to improved knowledge of rights or knowledge of how to handle a civil justice problem. The Internet’s utility in this respect, continues to be constrained by the quality of information provided and the public’s capacity to use it and apply it in a meaningful way. 

I am interested in the relationship between people’s legal capability and their digital capability. These are different. We know a reasonable amount about both topics separately through the research of Robert Porter, Martin Grammatikov and the work that I have done with Pascoe Pleasence and Nigel Balmer. However we know less about how these two constructs interact and what this means for an increasingly ‘digital by default’ world. As my colleagues and I have found, use of the Internet to help resolve legal problems continues to rise. However those people who use the Internet to help resolve legal problems are not representative of the public as a whole. 

In the context of recent policy developments this means that the populations targeted by online small claims courts and tribunals may be those least well placed to use these tools. Digital courts target a range of civil justice problems the type of which are disproportionately experienced by those who are digitally excluded or who have complex problems. I fear that the existing Money Claim Online has been taken as the paradigm but it is completely different: MCC is orientated towards commercial and bulk users. There are excluded groups where face to face assistance has to remain. Otherwise, there will be a proportion of users who will try and fail to use the online systems and fail to access justice. You can see the lessons coming out of the introduction of universal credit. Not everyone can manage a digital system where, for example, they must respond quickly to email messages.

I wrote a report for the Civil Justice Council on ‘Assisted Digital Support for justice system users’. This argued again that there has been too much conflation by MoJ/HMCTS between digital and legal capability. ONe of my conclusions was ‘the level of legal capability required to make use of digital MoJ/HMCTS services is routinely underestimated in digital service assessments’ and I emphasised ‘That users undertake a range of activities online is not to say that they have the capability to undertake legal processes online.’

It will be very interesting to contrast the approach to digital courts in Victoria to that over here. It feels much more open. Here, it feels that we are stumbling into the unknown. There is very little appetite by either the Ministry of Justice or Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service to ask questions or challenge presumptions. Funding new research is always going to be a particular problem at a time of austerity, but this should only reinforce the importance of paying attention to existing research. There is a lack of independent voices in current debate. I hope to continue to participate from Australia.

Catrina has written at least three must-read pieces in addition to the Civil Justice Council study referred to in the text if you are interested in the field: ‘Online and in the Know’; ‘When Legal Rights are Not a Reality’; and ‘Wrong about Rights’ 


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