Access to justice and technology: Ontario to explore what works

The Law Foundation of Ontario has invested over $CAN400,000 (£230,000, $US302,000 or 273,000 euros) in six research projects designed to report on how technology is being used to provide access to access to justice. Its approach contrasts with that manifest, for example, in the NESTA Legal Access Challenge or the Legal Services Corporation’s Technical Initiatives Grant programme where money has been put into direct experiment. These grants are research-orientated.

The foundation is spreading its money around to get different accounts from six organisations of the role of tech in different areas. Three are universities – OCAD University (once the Ontario College of Art and Design), the University of Ottawa and the University of Toronto. Two are community organisations – CLEO (Community Legal Education Ontario) and the Women Abuse Council of Toronto (Women ACT). The final donee is the Law Commission of Ontario. 

The Law Foundation rather favours this broad approach to splitting research into different but related parcels. Last month, it announced a separate $700,000 programme to ‘support empirical research on data collection and access in the justice sector’. That was a package of 13 grants with a variety of different recipients – among which there was some overlap. CLEO got a further $25,000 ‘to build a model for evaluating online interactive tools, specifically the Guided Pathways tool.’ This links presumably with the later grant which is to cover ‘an environmental scan around the regulation of smart legal forms designed for public use (both in Canada and internationally) and their impacts through an access to justice lens.’

The potential international relevance of this research is revealed by the subject matter of many of the other grants. These include issues in algorithmic justice: ‘The Law Commission of Ontario (LCO) will conduct research and consultations to understand how automated decision-making systems are being used in the justice sector in Ontario and across Canada. This grant will benefit the public and justice sector stakeholders that are interested in the regulation of AI technologies. The LCO aims to develop recommendations for a regulatory framework for algorithmic and AI technologies used by justice sector stakeholders.’ This is linked, in turn presumably, to work to be undertaken by the International Human Rights Program at the University of Toronto Law Faculty ‘on the human rights implications of using predictive analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) in the criminal justice context, with primary focus on examining how predictive analytics is used to support community policing by police departments.’

OCAD ‘will conduct research to understand how Ontarians use technology to resolve civil legal issues and their satisfaction with the technologies used. OCAD will also explore how legal technology designers and innovators incorporate public legal needs and experiences into their designs. This grant will benefit the public as well as legal technology innovators, designers, and investors. Through this work, OCAD aims to promote an exchange of knowledge between traditional access to justice legal service providers and the legal technology community. OCAD believes this will foster the development of technological tools that meaningfully impact the public and reduce barriers to accessing justice.’

The University of Ottawa ‘will examine how technology can be used to mitigate a barrier to the public effectively accessing justice: court form complexity. It will build on the academic researchers’ previous work evaluating the accessibility of paper-based court forms to examine the benefits and identify remaining challenges to making court forms easily accessible and usable for the public …’ And WomenACT will ‘conduct research to explore how women in the Greater Toronto Area who are experiencing violence use technology to obtain legal help and support.’

The results should be relevant for any jurisdiction in the world and are focused on an internationally relevant question. ‘“The Foundation’s broad aim for this granting is to better understand the practical ways that technology is, or could, change how legal services are provided and to support access to justice for people with legal needs,” says Tanya Lee, the Foundation’s CEO. 

Both of the foundation’s programmes look exemplary and might beneficially be followed by comparable independent funders around the world. The only issue is that one implicitly raised by the examples of NESTA and the LSC. Have we advanced enough to make reasonable judgements and effectiveness on the basis of existing projects or do we need more seed corn money to explore the possibilities? The answer to that should become apparent when we get to read the reports that are generated by the funding programme.

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