Access to Justice by Design: an Australian initiative

Mark Madden, Deputy Director, RMIT Centre for Innovative Justice

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A unique university program that applies design thinking and technology to tackle access to justice issues gets underway in Melbourne this week.

The Access to Justice Through Technology Challenge (A2JTTC) is the social policy stream of RMIT University’s Fastrack Innovation Program, a program that combines students from a range of disciplines in a competitive real world environment, matches them with mentors from industry and then sets them the task of finding a solution to a complex issue.

They have just 13 weeks to produce their solution, costings and advice on implementation.
The A2JTTC stream is unique for a number of reasons (I am happy to be corrected on this). While it examines access to justice issues, the stream is not run by the University’s law school. Instead, it is run in the College of Business by the University’s entrepreneurship program, led by successful businessman-cum-academic and architect of the Fastrack Program, Associate Professor David Gilbert, and a graduate of the first year of the Program, Sandra Arico, in association with the RMIT Centre for Innovative Justice. In addition, student participants do not have to come from a legal background, although in this its second year there are law and legal studies students participating.

The initial challenges are identified through consultations with the A2JTTC partners, Victoria Legal Aid and the Federation of Community Legal Centres. This year, four challenges will be tacked by 24 students in eight teams of three. Each problem will be tackled by two teams. The challenges are:

• Workers’ Rights (How might we ensure that disadvantaged employees are better equipped, empowered and supported to understand and act on their employment rights?);

• Debts and Disconnections (How might we ensure that those in (or at risk of) financial hardship have access to the information, resources and assistance they need, when they need it, to avoid accumulating debt and utilities disconnections?);

• Accessing Legal Assistance (How might we improve access to legal assistance in a way that ensures efficiency, high quality, targeted service delivery, and that the most vulnerable have priority?), and

• Service Delivery Across Community Legal Centres (How might we ensure that all clients of CLC’s receive the best quality service, irrespective of their location?)

The decision to have two teams tackle each challenge introduces a competitive element to the program while allowing for different approaches to be taken.

When the program began in 2015, there were many doubts about whether the program would work or produce anything of value. These doubts were progressively dispelled as the program developed.

In the end, they produced some amazing results. Their work around and insights into family violence has been fed into the implementation process for recommendations of the recent Royal Commission into Family Violence in Victoria. The legal assistance sector is also working to implement new processes and technologies around infringements and in particular the processing of special circumstances claims. More details of their solutions can be found here.

Feedback from students and mentors showed that the benefits flowed both ways. Students gained new understanding about important social and legal issues and the complexities of the justice system while the lawyers were exposed to design thinking and its potential to drive innovation in the justice system.

In hindsight what happened through the process was the virtual creation of what has been coined the ‘T-shaped’ lawyer. That is a lawyer, with deep knowledge of the law, that is able to work across or has knowledge of and access to the thinking of different disciplines. The combination of students, lawyers mentors and other industry mentors allowed each group to take a deep dive into the social and legal issues and then apply thinking from ‘outside the box’ to the challenge.

A number of lessons have been learned and changes made to the second year of the program to allow students more time to understand the issues and complexities around the challenges they were taking on.

Last year, the recruitment into the program was finalised just prior to the start of the program. The successful applicants were then quickly formed into teams and briefed at the first session of the program which began in the first week of second semester. In a very short space of time students had to deal with team dynamics as well come to terms with a complex social and legal issues and a new way of thinking!

This year, the recruitment was finalised much earlier, and at a session prior to the end of first semester the teams were formed and briefed on the challenges. This means that over the semester break students have been able to develop their teams but more importantly develop a greater understanding of the issues. This will allow them to ‘hit the ground running’ as it were and spend more time the problem and developing the solution.

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