Two Australian academics have done us a favour. Stebin Sam of Griffith University and Ashley Pearson of the University of the Sunshine Coast have published a paper recording the views on the use of technology of ten people involved in the state’s community legal centres (CLCs). The broad picture is that the Queensland’s 33 CLCs have ‘preferred to adopt digital technologies that assisted with their organisational needs over client-oriented services’. That is compatible with experience in other jurisdictions and was the message of the last annual report on developments globally in access to justice: ‘The first and overwhelmingly still the largest use of technology in A2J is what is effectively the ‘trickle down’ of its use in [improving business efficiency] generally and in the commercial legal sector’. But, there is much of interest in the detail.
Overall, the survey’s respondents were positive: ‘”We do generally find that allocating resources to a particular technology that we’ve identified as being really useful … is always [a] good use of money.” Particularly useful digital technologies were practice management software, cloud-based document storage and video conferencing software, all of which could have a profound influence on the work of the centres: ‘The adoption of organisational technologies may expand CLC productivity via the decentralisation of CLC offices, enabling of remote training and the automation of routine administrative tasks. Further, the time and resources that are saved by increasing productivity (through adopting organisational management software) can be redirected into assisting more clients.’ One respondent noted that speech recognition software (they used Dragon Naturally Speaking) had eliminated the task of typing and allowed the redeployment of staff.
The centres used the kind of practice management software developed in many comparable jurisdictions. In their case, it is known as CLASS and it proves handy for statistics to put into grant applications. There are the usual gripes: ‘the wider CLC community has articulated concerns that the data gathered by CLASS does not accurately represent the work undertaken by CLCs at the current time, due to the newness of the software and the hurdles faced during the continuing implementation of the software across Australia.’
The legal centres liked the telephone as a means of communication with clients: ‘because ‘“many [clients] have poor literacy kills so the written word is not necessarily their preferred [form of] communication”’. Emails had generally replaced written correspondence. There was more concern about video conferencing with clients than might have been expected in a state where many locations are quite remote. There were two particular problems. First, there was inadequate broadband. One participant reported ‘that their CLC had set up Skype facilities in several locations in remote centres to provide legal advice to people who could not access the CLC office. However, the program had to be discontinued due to a ‘problematic’ internet connection that constantly interrupted the appointments, eventually resulting in the lawyer telephoning the clients to complete the appointments.’ The second concern was privacy. “It is such a small town. if there is an office in the library and it’s got a sign on the door saying “Legal Advice Session in Progress”, it makes it fairly obvious that you’re getting legal advice and that decreases people’s privacy and confidentiality … Yeah, and look, the staff would be married to someone who is friends with someone you know.’ These are well worn concerns elsewhere.
The centres were using online information and education to extend their services. There were some interesting observations: ‘The literature asserts that smartphone applications are well-suited for community education and releasing self-help material; however, the data collected by this study suggests that mobile apps are not popular among Queensland CLCs. Only [one centre] … was developing mobile applications to assist clients. For [one respondent], the practical difficulty of using smartphone applications as an information tool is that every desired change must be filtered through the app developer; ‘of course, every time there is a change, everyone has to download the app again’. Another ‘explained that intending to FaceTime (video call) a client was pointless “because the clients can’t FaceTime because they don’t have the data and they don’t have money to pay for it on their phone”.
The centres seemed to be pretty savvy in the use of social media, although with some mixed feeling about its usefulness but one saying rather positively ‘“We’ve done things on Facebook where we do like myths and facts and we share articles about things like gaslighting and we talk about things that people might not know about and then they realise oh that’s actually my story, maybe I should contact these people …. we definitely get people … messaging us saying, oh my friend is in this situation. Who should I contact? What should I do?”’ The recipients took a balanced view on digital exclusion with ‘many agreeing that online self-help materials and legal assistance via technology may not be sufficient for some clients’.
Respondents remained convinced, as you would expect, of the importance of individual client contact as the key to generating trust. However, they were, overall, rather bullish about the future – focusing particularly on automating the production of documents: ‘Participants expected automation and artificial intelligence to play a greater role in the CLC sector’s future. For example, [one] said, ‘I think in the immediate future, at least, it will be better to see investments in technology as supporting and assisting in the automation of legal help systems’. Automation ‘means that all [of the CLC’s] energy can be focused on the thing you can’t easily automate’, such as providing personalised attention to a vulnerable client. [Another] believed that automation of legal documents was soon to be a reality, stating that ‘we are on the cusp of your automated electronic legal advisory databases. You can go now and type in “Letter of Demand” and you will fill in a few cues and it will give you a letter’. [A third] shared a similar view, indicating that many of the documents drafted for clients by the CLC were not such a ‘subtle piece of work that an online app couldn’t do the same thing’”.
On this understanding of the current position, the authors understandably concluded that technology was not being used disruptively within the community legal sector but largely incorporated within existing ways of working. Things may not be that different in the wider commercial sector. You can point to some disrupters like the various platforms but, actually, most use of technology remains in the back office. But, technology is, nevertheless, beginning to have an impact on the organisation and work of the centres.