Since 2012, a partnership of 17 community legal clinics has used A2J Author software to develop online interactive tools. Called the Clinic Interview Partnership (“Clinic IP”), we have created 10 tools to increase the capacity of Ontario’s poverty law clinics. The tools, A2J Guided Interviews, help staff, students, community agencies, and clients with:
- document assembly
Partnership of community legal clinics
The project started at the Community Legal Clinic – Simcoe, Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes in 2008. In 2012, it evolved into a partnership of legal clinics, governed by clinic managers, Legal Aid Ontario, and the Association of Community Legal Clinics of Ontario. The Simcoe clinic continues to manage the project and Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO) provides assistance with public legal information (“PLI”) and plain language design. Work is carried out by a multi-disciplinary team out of Parkdale Community Legal Services in Toronto.
Creating service provider capacity
Community legal clinics advocate for low income communities. The A2J Guided Interviews build clinic capacity by making client interviews more efficient or by supporting volunteers, community agencies, and clients to play a role in entering data and creating documents. In part, this approach appears similar to the UK’s Siaro family law platform.
Our A2J Guided Interviews support a mix of users. Some are exclusively for use by clinic staff and students. Others can also be used by clients. An area of particular interest is trusted intermediaries. These are community agencies trusted by hard-to-reach client groups, such as people who live in rural or remote communities or who do not speak English or French.
Use with person-to-person service
The technology is mostly used in conjunction with person-to-person service. There are three reasons for this. First, the project is a work in progress, so the A2J Guided Interviews are missing functionality such as account profiles and save and resume. These are features available to many organizations in the United States using A2J Author with LawHelp Interactive. We must use a temporary server system and train around the limitations.
In addition, the people served by legal clinics face challenges with digital literacy and access. Using the tools with person-to-person service addresses these challenges. Finally, we believe that this will assist clinics to identify best practices for more client self-help.
Design methodology and uptake
At the outset, we built template tools by working with legal clinic staff and conventional practice aids, such as intake manuals. We also worked with plain language designers to embed public legal information Learn Mores, ‘just-in-time’ help.
These A2J Guided Interviews were then piloted at select legal clinics, generating feedback, which resulted in iterative improvement. During the pilots, 11 of the 16 general service clinics in the project used at least one of the tools to serve clients.
Encouragingly, 8 of the 11 clinics advise that the technology has become a regular part of their practice. Despite the technical limitations of our temporary server system, A2J Guided Interviews proved helpful to legal clinics, especially in three respects:
- preparing appeals of Ontario Disability Support Program denials, a high volume and document intensive area of practice
- supporting student volunteers to deliver clinic services
- enabling clinics to better work with trusted intermediaries to serve hard-to-reach clients
The pilots also identified challenges. Many experienced caseworkers find guided workflow prescriptive. And some tools are too time-consuming for internal use at a busy legal clinic. Use of document assembly tools, both at legal clinics and by clients and community agencies, is often impractical without save and resume functionality. In addition, the intake tools are not yet integrated with clinics’ case management system. This means clinic staff to have to enter client data into two systems.
However, where the tools have been successful, legal clinics report promising outcomes:
- time savings on intake and document generation
- earlier access to legal clinic services
- less time spent training students
- new services, assisting clients with form completion
- better client experiences
These outcomes demonstrate that A2J Guided Interviews can expand and improve community legal clinic service.
The pilots identified factors critical to using A2J Guided Interviews with person-to-person services. The quality of content matters. High quality content required more than careful design. It required iterative design by trial and error.
Syncing the technology with person-to-person service was complex. Success took different forms at different clinics depending on available human resources, service area, and client need.
Promising outcomes involved different combinations of A2J Guided Interviews and users. An urban clinic with a law student program, serving many people who don’t speak English, had a different path to success than a rural clinic that serves remote communities in partnership with trusted intermediaries.
This underscored a distinction between use of the technology for client self-help and the use of A2J Guided Interviews in conjunction with person-to-person service. In the latter case, promising outcomes requires patient change management to win over the legal clinic caseworkers.
We saw that integration with the case management system was necessary to win over caseworkers. This promises to improve user experience by auto-populating previously-entered data into new A2J Guided Interviews while eliminating the need to enter data into two systems.
Supporting multi-sector agency referral networks with A2J Guided Interviews emerged as a particularly promising strategy for reaching hard-to-reach clients. By supporting referrals between agencies in a network like an alliance to end homelessness or partnerships of newcomer service providers, legal clinics helped non-legal caseworkers identify legal problems in the course of a referral to other non-legal agencies. But this required careful consideration of client consent and data ownership.
Finally, A2J Author’s institutional support and continued improvement appear to be a foundation for the sustainable use of the technology. It is free to government and non-profits, which helped us focus on content. While not as robust as some newer software, it has a non-technical editing interface that lets non-programmers tend to iterative changes. And surely it will improve over time to meet the emerging needs of the justice sector.
Designing a system for use at legal clinics
Our outcomes and observations have informed the design of a new server system for A2J Guided Interviews. This is a software wrapper for hosting the tools, which will provide necessary features for use with person-to-person services.
While Clinic IP remains a work in progress, A2J Guided Interviews promise to evolve as tools for community legal clinics. With time, the technology promises to be an enduring means of building capacity by working more closely with volunteers, community agencies, and clients.
For more information see our Final Report for the Fiscal Year 2015/16.
Erik Bornmann is a Staff Lawyer at the Community Legal Clinic – Simcoe, Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes. He can be reached at email@example.com.