Justice Connect: Gateway to a new digital world?

Justice Connect (JC), which recently released its Dear Landlord app assisting tenants, has now taken a step forward on a wider product: the online intake tool that is part of its wider Gateway Project. Someone at JC clearly has learned the art of the deal. Dear Landlord was a collaboration with Neota Logic and the law firm Allens. Supporters of the Gateway Project include Google and DLA Piper.

JC is also pretty hot at presentation. If reading about the project is not your thing, you can catch a three minute Youtube video. This takes you through the genesis of the project from Hope to Execution and the promise of a full pro bono portal, a case management system and more digital self help tools. The written version gives the following detail: ‘Starting with $250,000 [£140,000 or US$181,000] of seed-funding from Google in early 2017 we set out to redesign the way we work. Our Gateway Project will see us develop a suite of products, each targeted at addressing particular issues. Our online intake tool, already launched, helps people quickly and easily understand whether they are eligible for our services, and make a full application online. Our referral tool will help our sector colleagues understand when we can help, and easily warm-refer clients deep into our system, reducing referral drop-out. Our pro bono portal will revolutionise the way we work with our network of 10,000 pro bono lawyers, ensuring we’re making the most of their capacity, and matching them with the rights clients.’

The intake tool is billed as a ‘minimum viable product’ subject to further amendment on feedback. You can test the product to see how it works. JC is an Australian pro bono organisation formed from the amalgamation of Public Interest Clearing Houses in New South Wales and Victoria. It provides a range of services in different areas of law in different parts of the country. So, describing its services is not without complication. There is, for example, a section on the site limited to its provision only on Victorian homelessness law. There is also a section for self represented litigants to federal courts but only in Victoria, New South Wales, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territories.  These limitations are likely to be unavoidable in a country with multiple jurisdictions and an organisation with various contracts. But it is complicated. Generally, the site is extremely slick at managing this – though some of the general slickness cries out to be extended to a little of the content. For example, the site publishes a pretty dense guide to eligibility in homelessness cases:  the rest of its style would suggest that you could improve this with a guided pathway and simplified content.

Kate Fazio, Justice Connect’s Manager of Digital Innovation Strategies, gives the following account of the international origins of the product which is worth quoting at length for its acknowledgement of the international influence in this field: 

Our work has been inspired by a few factors. In 2016, Justice Connect was already working at the intersection of law and technology, but we were developing products at program-specific levels, rather than looking at the organisation as a whole, or the sector as a whole. We realised that as our organisation is a connector in a complex system, a lot of our processes could make better use of technology to speed up our work and to draw more insights from our data. We also realised we weren’t the only organisation thinking this, although there weren’t many organisations in Australia active in the technology and access to justice space in 2016. I attended the LSC TIG conference in 2016 and was really surprised to find a whole community of people actively looking into the possibilities of using technology to address legal assistance sector problems. I saw some interesting examples of online intake at the TIG [Technical Initiatives Grant] conference, but I think the most influential factor was witnessing a community of lawyers giving tech product development a go in a collaborative community. That really inspired me. 

When I returned to Australia, I presented what I’d seen and heard at TIG, and suggested that we focus our efforts on some organisational level technology projects. This is what led to us approaching Google for seed funding, which we were ultimately successful in receiving. We were really determined to develop an online intake model that was responsive to and respectful of the needs of people who have legal problems. The product we’ve released is a starting point, and … the release of a new website. This [is] a neat demonstration of the process of building on a simple product and extending and enhancing it to better meet user needs. 

I attended TIG again this year, and presented at the Conference about our intake project and what we’ve learnt from the US experience. It was a really great moment to realise that Justice Connect is now well and truly part of this collaborative community of organisations working with technology to improve access to justice. We’ve tried hard to foster a similar collaborative community in Australia, and there are signs that this is beginning to take off, with new projects in the pipeline, and a more active national conversation about the role for technology in improving the access to justice ecosystem.

It might seem a bit gross to introduce a degree of commercial competition into this sunny world of not for profit collaboration. But, you can see what Google has given to Justice Connect. The equivalent US project is a collaboration between Microsoft and the Legal Services Corporation in Alaska and Hawaii. Rivalry and comparison can only be a good thing. Surely.

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