Sherry MacLennan, Legal Services Society, BC
The Legal Services Society (LSS) launched MyLawBC, an online platform with an ODR twist, on May 29, 2016. LSS is British Columbia’s legal aid provider, and has a history of providing online self-help. When severe funding cuts in 2002 curtailed family service and eliminated civil legal aid, we filled in gaps online, beginning with our Family Law Website. It was aimed at social service workers who had both the internet access and skills to help our low income clientele. MyLawBC is our first foray into online dispute resolution (ODR).
Since 2002, both who is looking for help online and how they access information has changed. Most low income people now regularly access the internet, usually through a smart phone. As a result of those changes, we knew we needed to adapt to better meet the needs of the people who were looking for answers online. We wanted to help them actually solve or avoid everyday legal problems, not just provide information.
To meet this goal, we envisioned MyLawBC as a flexible platform for dispute resolution and avoidance. This vision led to the tag line, My problem, My solution. Research shows high satisfaction when people feel in control of solutions for their problem. Our object is not so much to educate, but to engage people in solving their problems. To do this, we use a number of techniques:
– interactive questions and answers
– information in small chunks
– user friendly self-help tools
-links to in-person services
We also highlight the value of professional assistance and provide options for free or low cost legal and alternative services including mediators and notaries. Many Canadians self-represent because they run out of money before their case concludes or because they are afraid of costs. Many, particularly in family cases, go to court by themselves – in BC there are no laws requiring a lawyer be present.
As a legal aid plan, we had significant cost and time constraints. With one-time limited funding, we concluded we could best realize our vision for MyLawBC by working with the Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law (HiiL) and Modria, the agencies behind the Dutch legal aid board’s Rechtwijzer site. This site inspired our vision and future goals. Collaborating internationally is not without challenges, but is not as difficult as one might first think. The benefits were significant in terms of learning new skills and obtaining a secure, flexible platform in a short period of time. Future services may include mediation, arbitration and video advice. Continuing collaboration through the consortium of agencies using this technology means we benefit from lower costs, increased sustainability and further development of platform features.
MyLawBC addresses separation, family violence, mortgage debt, wills & personal planning. A question and answer process (a guided pathway) leads to customized tools and self-help resources tailored to your needs. The ODR twist is found in the Dialogue Tool, a negotiation platform for separating couples. This moves the site from an information orientation to online dispute resolution. The platform supports separating couples to reflect on their situation, facilitates chat online, financial disclosure and enables them to draft a separation agreement together. If you would like to test the Dialogue Tool, use “Mylawbc” as a surname to help us identify test cases. The Dialogue Tool encourages an interest based approach to resolving issues, but works hand in hand with the separation pathway. The pathway provides an overview of key legal concepts and a tailored negotiation tool kit. You receive the most appropriate kit out of twenty on the system, depending on how you answered the pathway questions. The toolkit contains more in-depth information on legal rights and negotiation tips. We know not all family disputes can be settled, so MyLawBC includes pathways to get a court order or respond to court proceedings. In those cases, links to self-help guides on our Family Law Website are provided.
Early stakeholder access and media coverage prior to the official launch meant there were nearly 3000 visits to the site before the official launch. The wills pathway proved most popular with 37 per cent of the traffic, followed by the separation pathway. Feedback has been positive particularly with regard to the design and accessibility: the site focuses on user experience and strong visuals, incorporating infographics, video and audio clips. Text based tools feature illustrations and checklists to engage the reader. Action plans are written at no higher than grade eight literacy levels.
Our next steps are more user testing, an evaluation for effectiveness, planning for future services and applying what we’ve learned to our older websites.