British Columbia sets the bar

Canada’s British Columbia is not only geographically stunning – even in its cities. The province also has no less than three organisations that set global benchmarks in their approach to online dispute resolution and legal assistance: the Civil Resolution Tribunal, the Legal Services Society and the Justice Education Society. Beat these and you can be a world leader: come in below them and you are second best. Comparison should be a mandatory requirement for organisations engaged in similar activity.

The three are very different. The Civil Resolution Tribunal is established by statute, the Civil Resolution Tribunal Act  [SBC 2012]. The Legal Services Society is the statutory body responsible for the delivery of legal aid services in the province. Among its suite of provision is MyLawBC.com, a legal assistance site established with the help of the Rechtwijzer team of what is now the Hague Institute for Innovation of Law and the software company that was Modria and is now Tyler Technolgies. Biting at the ankles of these two is an NGO, the Justice Education Society that produces a range of videos and other materials to help the resolution of disputes.

The Civil Resolution Tribunal has two remarkable attributes. First, it actually exists; has been taking a specialist form of housing (known as ‘strata’) disputes for a year; and dealing with small claims under $5000 (a shade under £3,000) since June. That puts it ahead of the proposed Online Solutions Court in England and Wales as well as most other jurisdictions in the world. Second, it has incorporated an innovative Solution Explorer as its initial front end.

The Solution Explorer embodies what Richard Susskind’s Civil Justice Committee called ‘Tier One’ of the proposed online small claims court, suggesting that it ‘should provide Online Evaluation.This facility will help users with a grievance to classify and categorize their problem, to be aware of their rights and obligations, and to understand the options and remedies available to them.’

Lord Justice Briggs, who visited BC between publishing his interim and final report, bought into the idea in a big way: ‘The main feature of the proposed Online Court which sets it apart from any process of digitisation along the above lines is its stage 1 interactive triage process. It is this which (if it works) would provide a quantum leap in the navigability of the civil courts by those without lawyers on a full litigation retainer. Without it, the blank sheet (or blank screen) approach of the existing systems would leave the court as un-navigable as before.’

It is worth looking in detail at how the solution explorer works. The CRT website allows you to do this and a handy youtube video assists. A later post will explore this in more detail but the basic idea is that the user is taken down a guided pathway in which they select options that narrow their enquiry. On the way, they are given information about their problem; choices as to how potentially to address it; and assistance such as draft letters. It is a very simple idea; for small claims, it has only being running three months and is partly still under development; but, intuitively it looks a really good resource. Translated into an English context, it would be revolutionary because it involves the court assuming a responsibility for assisting a user in the formulation of a problem, not just giving them a form to fill and a process to pursue. Traditionally, this would be seen as beyond the court’s remit and the job of someone else – lawyers (who no longer have much of a presence in small claims), advice agencies or others. It is an illustration of how digitalisation can transform rather than simply translate services.

MyLawBC is the sister of the proposed Relate project. Its development has been somewhat stalled as the Legal Services Society scrambles to disengage from the failed HiiL/Modria partnership. However, it provides four pathways on separation, divorce and family matters; abuse and family violence; missed mortgage payments; and wills and personal planning. Proceeding through these, you can end up building documents like a separation agreement or a will. Again, a later piece will discuss this in more detail.

Finally, there is the Justice Education Society which wins the prize for best videos (of which the section of its website on its domestic works contains the impressive number of exactly 100). It has the best (indeed, only) avatar – a video of a real figure who talks to you; is called Jes; and which provides you with information (just begging to be upgraded with sophisticated AI) . It also has the best guide to negotiation (including sections which include ‘preparing for a tough talk’). Again, more detailed coverage to follow.

Something about BC’s west coast vibe; its welcome to innovation; its commitment to technology has led to it to number one in the Technology in the Service of Access to Justice rankings. Jurisdictions like England and Wales have prospectively much more cash to spend but can they knock it off its perch? And any assertion of a world-leading role would need to be supported by a rigorous comparative exercise – something which might profitably  be taken up by organisations from Her Majesty’s Court Service to Citizens Advice.

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