‘In the face of rising levels of unmet legal need, we design and deliver high impact interventions to increase access to legal support and progress social justice.’ The Australian organisation, Justice Connect, may not have a snappy statement of purpose but it has one that sets out an ambitious stall. And the organisation’s track record suggests a history of rising to the challenge. But what kind of organisation is it and where is its work on innovation and technology taking it?
The origins of Justice Connect lie in a fairly standard US style pro bono clearing house, Initially founded in the 1990s as separate organisations in New South Wales Law Foundation in Victoria with membership made up of law firms and state-based legal and bar associations, in 2013 the two similar clearing houses merged to form Justice Connect. Each brought with them a core concern with pro bono but also a ragbag of various direct services accumulated over the period of their existence in fields like homelessness. The result is a large organisation now with a total of some 80 or 90 staff (50-60 of them full-time) managing a miscellaneous range of programmes, some of them national and some state-based, loosely arranged around the pro bono commitment. The total budget is about $Aus10m (£5.4m or $US7.5m). Sources of funding are diverse. Chief Executive Chris Povey counts around sixty – including state and federal aid, philanthropic resourcing and contributions from the pro bono firms that use the organisation.
Managing this diversity has its difficulties. ‘The issue for me when I first here as Chief Executive three years ago was how to bring it together. We had a range of services – for example for consumers and self represented litigants,’ says Chris Povey, ‘We looked for a unifying theme. A commitment to the innovative use of technology was a major part of bringing things together. The foundations of our tech work were established when I joined. We already had a Google Impact Challenge grant. Our Gateway project research phase was completed. We had begun use online intake forms. We were Investigating implementing a customized CRM. The underlying thread was technology’s capacity to increase access to legal support.’
The commitment to design as well as delivery has proved important. It has put an emphasis on innovation and has led to a change in the composition of the workforce. The organisation now also has a senior developer, Manpreet Singh who heads a team of three developers as part of a broader innovation team. There is a greater proportion of non-lawyers compared to previously. The senior management team was reorganized when Chris Povey started. Kate Fazio, originally employed from private practice to head up the online work with not for profit organisations in the Not-for-profit Law service, and who had been working on Justice Connect’s digital strategy and Gateway Project, took the newly created post of head of innovation and engagement. “Senior leadership is important,’ says Chris Povey. ‘We previously had a flat approach to organisation. We needed to have structures in place to support innovation. There has to be someone who can say “go/no go”. We need quality control.’
The consequence, says Kate Fazio, is that ‘We are in some ways more like a tech startup than a community legal centre. We have a strong entrepreneurial spirit within the organisation – parts of which are still providing traditional legal services. But the digital and innovation strategy is now well baked in. We have a whole bunch of energetic people interested in pushing boundaries and space for pushing digital and other services. Technology and innovation is an integral part of organisation. We always had an interesting mix of people on staff. We have leaned into that. The mix is now extraordinary and we all benefit from that.’
Ms Fazio was tasked in 2016 with reviewing how Justice Connect might identify challenges and opportunities in technological innovation. She reported the next year – looking not only internationally at developments in other jurisdictions (‘Coming from Australia may be an advantage because we are used to looking elsewhere.’) but also at other industries and services. That underlined the importance of technology in context. ‘After our research phase, in developing our digital strategy we made a key commitment, that our digital work should not prioritise technology first, but should apply a wider, design problem-solving lens. We would use technology only where it had a role to play in solving a problem or making an improvement.’
The tangible result has been how Justice Connect’s Gateway Project has worked out. This is described in more detail here. It has three components – intake and triage, referral and a pro bono portal. The last has really taken off globally – reflecting the enthusiasm of some of the international firms whose Australian arms work with Justice Connect. The portal has proved transferable. England and Wales, Ireland and New Zealand are already using it and discussions are in place with a number of European and Asian jurisdictions. ‘We have been helped by the international firms. They love it and can see the potential for its use elsewhere. We are now exploring whether we can expand to countries that do not have a mature pro bono system and might want to leapfrog forward with a good referral system.‘
The project may now have gone global but some of the impetus behind the improved matching of requests for, and offers of, assistance was domestic. The bushfires that have raged through parts of Australia in recent years revealed the need for rapidly available legal assistance with disaster issues. This was re-emphasised by the Covid pandemic. Justice Connect played a major role in making information available in both contexts and then following through with referrals for assistance.
’We saw a huge consumer demand for online assistance,’ reports Kate Fazio. ‘There was an increase of over 400 per cent in the use of our online resources around start of pandemic. We created a cross-organisation agile response team. We were looking at things like popular search terms and consumer behaviour, enquiries data, use across our Pro Bono Portal. We were able to get a real time sense of legal need. We created new resources every week in response to that analysis and we started a huge digital marketing campaign that promoted our resources and services in response to that demand. with over 800,000 unique views of our self-help resources in the period. Our in-house evaluation which included consumer research suggests this project had a really high impact.’
‘Applications of technology in our work are broadranging. We are interested in digital strategy in a range of contexts. These include those which are consumer facing – like applying for assistance or digital products like self help tools. We are also interested in technology that helps us run our organization more efficiently. There are huge opportunities to make things go more smoothly. And we are interested in using technology with our key stakeholders. We get a huge number of referrals from our peer organisations – and have built technology to make it easier. It has been very useful in disaster support. And there is an enormous opportunity to use technology to matching people and providers of pro bono services. There are opportunities at all these points.’
There are at least two obvious questions to ask of Justice Connect’s approach. First, the idea of Artificial Intelligence certainly has been very trendy and governments, in particular, seem to find any mention of AI very attractive. But could it play a significant role in access to justice? The results of US experimentation with natural language processing in relation to legal queries looks a bit equivocal. Kate Fazio says, ‘Until recently we thought that natural language processing was a bit of a pipe dream. But, when the US Spot project [which explored the coding of legal questions for NLP purposes] came about, we felt that was really interesting. We have been collecting our own structured data through our intake tool, and have been working with a University to train an AI model to diagnose legal problems in language samples. We actually have a working model which has delivered some good results. Our proof of concept has been performing with up to 90 per cent accuracy in some categories – those, like housing, where we have lots of data from our own work. But, so far we have done enough to show that this could be a workable model if you have enough data. We are not proposing to replace individual contact with a model that is only 90 per cent accurate. We do have enough to help in some contexts with nudging. We can ask you to describe your problem and then the programme can assist the user to respond. For some problem categories we still need more data, and we’re also looking at how our model performs for different cohorts – we’re concerned about bias and performance and to make sure were building ethical AI. This is work in progress. We are actually a lot further along than we thought. Linguistics are regional but it is good that there are international projects. These regional projects are usefu as they can help us say to another region what is an adequate data sample set that will be required to train a diagnostic NLP, and which base NLPs work best.’
The second obvious question is about digital exclusion. Both Chris Povey and Kate Fazio are predictably bullish on the possibilities of digital. Kate Fazio says, ‘There are people who are digitally excluded. But it is not a clear “one or the other” choice. We need a system that uses a range of channels. All channels exclude some people. Some people will need ‘in person’ help, but some people need an online entry point and you will exclude people if you don’t have digital entry points. We have surveyed our help seekers, and 50 per cent prefer applying for help online for a variety of reasons. Good service design is crucial, you need an appropriate menu of options. And having the data from digital is huge. For example, it really helps advocacy. You can ask for changes to the law and more resources when you have the insights you gain through having a whole interaction mapped in a digital setting’’ Chris Povey agrees. ‘Exclusion is a massive and changing issue, particularly as government moves increasingly online. However people have far greater skills and resources than is credited and technology provides a huge opportunity. ‘
And the future? Kate Fazio puts the goal in simple terms. ‘In five years I want to point to major increases in access. Digital is critical to achieving this purpose.’