Digital accessibility: ten top lessons from the latest research

The ability of people to access and use digital means of communication is, of course, vital to the development of law as a digital platform and the provision of access to justice. The territory of digital inclusion and exclusion can become the site of a rather staged battle between techno-philes and phobes. For example, Richard Susskind, for the former, recently argued to a Parliamentary Committee that almost everyone – 95 per cent of the UK population – had access to the internet either directly or through someone who could assist them. The Labour chair of the commmittee, David Hanson, responded with scepticism, ’“You should come to some of the council estates in my constituency, where there’s lack of access and people haven’t got computers.”’ Now Canada has ridden into town with some decent research. Legal Aid BC (British Columbia) has done us all a favour with a major Digital Equity in Access to Justice project with Kate M Murray, The Sentis Group and Argentis Digital Media as consultants. Below are my top ten takeaways from what looks like an excellent project.

British Columbia is a bit of a technology hotspot. In the legal field, it is, for example, the home of Clio, responsible for the cloud-based case management software making a bid for world dominance in the small to medium law firm market with approval from the Law Society and collaboration with the US Legal Services Corporation. Legal Aid BC has traditionally put considerable emphasis on Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI) and its MyLawBC website remains an example of a set of world-beating guided digital pathways. So, for Legal Aid BC, digital access/exclusion is a key issue. It needs to know if digital works: it has, as they say, a skin in the game. 

If this is your field, you need to know about this project. Handily, for those tired of the written word, there are a couple of hour-long presentations of the project on Youtube. These make a good introduction. For those still happy to read, there are a suite of documents, the key one of which is the final report. There is also a literature review, and a set of basic reports including a survey of BC residents, examination of a set of user journeys and research on the perspectives ‘of outreach and intake staff, community workers, Elders, and service providers who often work with people facing barriers to accessing digital legal resources.’ From these, you can – and should –  get all the detail. 

My selection of the top ten messages – stripped of their provincial relevance and seen as applying to any jurisdiction relatively similar to BC – would be:

  1. Digital can work for a significant part of the population. ‘Overall, the … project found that digital legal resources may be very effective for some people but not for others. Further, they may be most effective when used in combination with knowledgeable, trauma-informed, one-to-one legal help.’
  2. Digital access and exclusion is best understood as a gradient rather than as binary. 
  3. The digital divide is composed three levels. 
    1. Connectivity, use and access to devices. A significant percentage of the population regardless of income have smart phones but fewer have tablets, printers or computers. Not all devices are connected to the internet. Price and data limits are an important excluding factor.
    2. Motivation, skill and quality of use in, and of, the internet. People have ‘repertoires of activity’ with which they are comfortable. Most can use email. Fewer use internet banking or shopping. ‘Many BC residents also face a second digital divide – additional barriers that limit their ability to equitably use and benefit from online resources or services. Our survey of BC residents found that 44 per cent of people in lower income households– and 53 percent of people in very low income households – face one or more barriers to using the Internet, compared with only 18 percent of people in moderate to high income households. The most common barriers relate to technology access and costs. However, barriers related to digital skill and comfort, and trust and privacy concerns, are also relatively common.’ In addition and crucially:

      3.  There is a combined effect of digital equity and access to justice. ‘In addition to digital divides, many people are also impacted by access to justice issues such as unaffordable legal fees, the technical nature of legal processes, and stress or trauma. These combined issues of digital equity and access to justice can create a “double set” of barriers that can occur before seeking help, during online searches, and while using digital legal resources.’

  4. The younger and more affluent the user, the better they can generally deal with digital. But we have to recognise and plan for the fact that many people who have low incomes and feel marginalised, do not have access to digital information and/or are unable to use it. 
  5. Most people value individual help from a  person even when dealing online with a problem. And they want their helper to be empathetic to them: they want a human response to their problem. ‘Access to trauma-informed, multilingual, and in-person one-to-one assistance, alongside supported technology access, is especially key for some.’
  6. ‘A person-centred, accessibility-focused, and multi-channel approach to delivery of PLEI can use digital design practices that mitigate barriers, while also providing complementary and/or alternative forms of help for people who are unable to access or use digital legal resources.’ The provision of a chat function on a website is helpful. User friendly design is crucial.
  7. People use Google and providers have both to recognise that and ensure that internal searching within websites is up to its standard (it is often not).
  8. Counterintuitively (and rather interestingly), Covid 19 seems not to have improved trust in digital. In fact, for those on low incomes, such trust has diminished.
  9. Users like text as a medium of communication and, Heaven help them, Facebook Messenger.

In an introduction to the final report, Sherry MacLennan, Vice President of Legal Aid BC, says that LABC ‘hope[s] this study will also be useful to other public legal service providers – and we hope it will help raise broad awareness of digital equity as a key element of access to justice.’ So it should.

Leave a Reply