The Solution Explorer, developed as an opening component of the Civil Resolution Tribunal (CRT) in British Columbia, merits examination by anyone interested in either online small claims resolution or online legal assistance. For those who like visuals, there is an animated guide, put up in December, on Youtube. For those who are comforted by the more decorous world of legal journals, the Chair of the Tribunal and its chief legal architect, respectively Shannon Salter and Darin Thompson, have obliged in the current issue the McGill Journal on Dispute Resolution. If your fingers hover over British Columbia on the keyboard, you might also want to look at MyLawBC.com (to which we will return) but this article is confined to the CRT and really only one aspect of that tribunal – the initial Solution Explorer. This, like MyLawBC, heralds the next generation in the provision of legal assistance on the web and gives it a global importance.
To some extent, it is probably wrong to single out one element of the online tribunal – which is in the course of construction and yet to reach its full extent. One of its underlying principles is that it represents a holistic service, ‘an end to end civil justice architecture’. The Solution Explorer has been conceived as the opening procedure within a coherent whole. Its authors have a warning on ‘pick and mix’ provision in which different elements are grafted together. This is likely to be pertinent to the plans of the Ministry of Justice in England and Wales – which is racing to implement an online small claims court by the time of the next election – but we will see:
The notion of end-to-end design, combining dispute resolution phases, is contrasted with initiatives that graft a single dispute resolution process onto a larger, pre-existing one. For example, the addition of a mediation step into an adversarial court process that generally follows typical court procedures, with an orientation towards inevitable trial, will not necessarily reflect an end-to-end design or achieve its goals. The mediation step could certainly generate benefits. But it does not reflect the same type of complete system proposed in [the Civil Resolution Tribunal].
In flagrant disregard of this observation and for the purpose of analysis only, let us look at the Solution Explorer on its own. Its champions explain it thus:
The Solution Explorer is a simple, web-based expert system that carries out several functions to assist a user in understanding and resolving their dispute. It does not collect any personal information, and is available for free to the public, regardless of whether they have a CRT claim. An expert system is a technology-based platform that imitates or emulates the feedback, guidance, or reasoning of a human expert. … This knowledge is structured in a specific way to make it computer readable, and accessible to the expert system user through the system’s user interface.
A foundational design principle … is to create opportunities for early resolution. The Solution Explorer provides these opportunities in different ways. First, the system helps to diagnose a user’s problem by narrowing it from the level of a wide domain, down to a much more granular level. A representative model would look like this:
> Karin has a Small Claims problem
>> Karin’s Small Claims problem relates to the purchase of a good or service
>>> Karin’s purchase is a consumer (personal, family or household use) type
>>>> Karin is the consumer (purchaser)
>>>>> Karin’s purchase is a service contract
>>>>>> Karin’s service contract is a continuing service contract (e.g. a tness club membership)
>>>>>>> Karin wants to cancel and is having a disagreement over the terms of cancellation
The way that the user experiences this ‘justice journey’ or ‘guided pathway’ is through a series of questions that follow on from each other. The best way to understand this is to follow through an example in relation either to ‘strata disputes’ on the CRT website (cases involving rights in relation, largely, to blocks of flats) which are already in the system or, on a wider range of questions, in relation to residential tenancies (and still in beta form) on the BC Ministry site. The latter also comes with its own Youtube video guide. You can choose whether to be a tenant or a lawyer and are then taken through a decision tree similar in essence to the small claims example above. You can stop at any time and your search will be saved for 28 days. You get a password to allow your return. At the end, you get a summary of the information given.
There are all sorts of questions to ask about the detail and the design of what is provided. Personally, for example, I think the layout is too influenced by the government style and suffers in comparison with MyLawBC’s better use of colour and lay out. I would not make so much of the terms and conditions which you have to accept. However, although it is generally true that the devil lies in the detail, the point here is the big picture. The Solution Explorer – like MyLawBC and the Dutch Rechtwijzer programme – represents a major step forward in the use of the net to provide legal assistance because the programme is tailoring the advice to the user; giving only what the user needs; and, in the process, framing the questions asked by the user into problems that are susceptible to solution rather than a mess which is not. Roll over, Gutenberg: you had a good run. Legal assistance on the web is no longer constrained by the form of the book.