From Sydney with Love: technology and the international

Last month over 100 people from over 30 countries  met virtually to discuss the state of legal aid globally. Sessions covered a variety of topics including health-justice partnerships, holistic services (very popular), crime, young persons, quality assurance, the impact of Covid, and the services available in the host jurisdiction of New South Wales. Logistically, the holding of such a conference involved solving a variety of problems and required a number of inputs. Legal Aid New South Wales held it together; the International Legal Aid Group (ILAG) organised it; Professor Alan Paterson of Strathclyde University led a steering group that put it together. Timing was an issue. Delegates in London got up for 7am on three days. Those in the US and Canada got the really short straw – turning out of bed in the middle of the night. For Australians, it was late afternoon. Readers unaware of this conference or unwilling or unable to make it can still benefit. You can make your own selection of greatest hits from the powerpoints, videos and papers posted by Legal Aid NSW.

Professor Paterson

ILAG was formed in 1992, the year it held its first conference in The Hague. It has met at broadly two-year intervals ever since with the prime purpose of bringing together legal aid administrators and academics with the aim of increasing the impact of evidence-driven policy. LAG has some successes under its belt. Two examples would be the international spread of quality assurance procedures for legal aid practitioners and forms of access to justice/social need surveys. UK academics have very much taken the lead on these issues with Professors Paterson and Sherr on quality and Hazel Genn on surveys. These are ideas which have influenced practice and been replicated in countries from Chile to China.

Technological innovation provides a theme with an obvious international relevance to access to justice. And, true enough, there was a session on this topic which I can commend you to watch – not least for the presentation by Professor Sandefur and myself on the likely future of developments. Other contributions in the same session – representing internationally relevant issues – included digital exclusion (Lithuania) and the role of technology in the resolution of family disputes (New South Wales). So, this was a session with an Australian, a Brit, an American and a Lithuanian – a good illustration of the diversity of those attending.

The purpose of this article is, however, not to celebrate a past event or even a present organisation but to argue for future development. ILAG provides a unique way in which those engaged in legal aid (let us continue to dodge definition) can come together; report on developments in their jurisdiction; and seek inspiration from what has been done elsewhere. National gatherings like the annual Legal Services Corporation Technical Initiatives Conference held in the US show the value of bringing people together. This is so good that numbers have escalated over recent years and, significantly, the number of those from outside the US has also increased. To refer back to a previous post, this is where I first met Australia’s JusticeConnect’s Kate Fazio while she was doing her review of developments. And I would really recommend anyone interested in the field to attend – something made much easier and cheaper if it can be done virtually (if not so much fun).

But the success of the ILAG session on technology suggests that the development of technology in access to justice would benefit from further routes for information exchange and discussion. Technology, for example Zoom (on which the ILAG conference was very successfully run), and its equivalents make this is a possibility. The main effort would be successful organisation of the kind put in by Professor Paterson – ie time rather than money. Also, you have the banal problem of finding a time which is acceptable to delegates around the world. ILAG held an earlier trial conference on technology last year. That was run in what was the evening in the UK, the early morning on the next day in Australasia and in the morning on America’s West Coast. For this particular topic, you might want to facilitate US/Canadian attendance because there is so much to contribute from experience there. So, evening UK might be the most suitable for a technology discussion open to those around the world. 

And how might the discussion be structured? The problem is that there is so much potential content that it is likely to overwhelm the potential window of acceptable time that people can attend. It could be organised in any number of ways. An opening exploration of relevant topics might concentrate on technological innovation in:

  1. the practice of law (including innovation in private practice and covering the development and implications of virtual work);
  2. legal empowerment, unbundling and helping people to solve legal problems themselves (eg self-assembly forms, case management for unbundlers etc);
  3. management of the intake, problem identification, integration of information and referral process;
  4. the implications of the digitalisation of courts and tribunals;
  5. digital exclusion and inclusion; and
  6. innovative forms of practice including the blending together of different services in new ways made possible by technology.

This is too much and some winnowing of subject matter would be inevitable. As to form, this could lead to a small discussion by 10 people on a seminar basis (get the right people and this could be fascinating). Or it could be a big conference for 200. The wonder of technology is that it makes no real technical difference. The discussion is likely to be better if numbers are small: the impact greater if there are more. 

The ILAG session shows the sort of approach that might be taken and how this might be done. We would be doing well to organise at the standard set by ILAG and Legal Aid New South Wales. However, if you think that this is a development worth taking forward; have ideas on how it might be done; or want to get involved with helping on organisation get in touch or watch this space: rsmith@rogersmith.info or @lawtech_a2j.

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