Pinball, International Conferences and Access to Justice

The International Access to Justice Online Forum has been like ‘pinball with flashing lights and ringing bells’ said a reflective Lynne Haultain, executive director of Victoria Law Foundation that organised it jointly with the University of California Civil Justice Research Initiative. The videos of discussion over three days have recently gone online. We need to think about the lessons of the experience of what has been an excellent and trailblazing conference, said Ms Haultain. The pinball analogy is interesting – apposite for many conferences in terms of the random stream of insights even from the best. For those of a certain age, it is also resonates of the legendary Pinball Wizard who, deaf, dumb and blind, ‘ain’t got no distractions, can’t hear no buzzers and bells, don’t see no lights a-flashing … [But] always gets the replay ..’ The essence of pinball – and maybe international conferences – may be more in the patterns than the bells, lights and whistles.

The conference was excellent and provided an example of what can be done at the frontier of international collaboration in access to justice. It was organised from two jurisdictions which broadened any underlying national preconceptions of the organisers. It covered the key areas – legal tech and access to justice, deregulation, data, empowerment, design, Covid and the courts, climate change and legal need, legal eduction and access to justice. It ended with ‘Looking to the Future’. And the administration was flawless. Speakers joined seamlessly from around the world. The technology worked smoothly. Tenielle Hagland, research co-ordination at the Victoria Law Foundation, was credited by the foundation as being responsible for this side of the operation and she should step out from the shadows and take a bow.

The selection of speakers was impeccable. For tech and access to justice, we got New Zealand academic Bridgette Toy-Cronin, the US legal design guru Margaret Hagan and Richard Rogers, acting chair of the Civil Resolution Tribunal in British Columbia.

The only problem with the whole thing is that the timings were fine for the US and Australia. From London, not so good. In truth, I waited for the online video.

All these speakers made good points. I liked Bridgete Toy-Cronin’s position on robolawyers – not coming any time soon and people still largely need individualised assistance but tech can help some but all. One of the messages that she stressed – and was implicitly underlined by the conference itself – was the importance of collaboration and co-ordination. ‘Innovations,’ she argued, ‘have a real risk of being lost in the wilderness’. Margaret Hagan plugged away at the need for better research and development of what works and the importance of human-centred design. Richard Rogers laid out the work of BC’s Civil Resolution Tribunal, including its pioneering Solution Explorer.

The final session on the future was much more original than these things often are. I footnote the participants to avoid tediousness in the writing. We returned to the meaning and usefulness of access to justice; the value of data; the importance of research. Get to my age and you can sometimes feel like a relic of another age. Some of us never liked the phrase ‘access to justice’. A few of us can remember the counter from a Canadian professor ‘Before access to justice there was just justice’. And the occasional reprobate like me argues that the justification for assisting people with their rights and obligations is essentially constitutional rather than some sort of flimsy alleged financial benefit (all those $1 on legal aid saves $5 of other cost arguments) or jealousy at spending on expensive criminal defence cases (which discount the value of essential social cohesion). I have a similar old-fashioned grumpiness about the pleas for more data. When did governments ever care much about figures? When did it help to count the deckchairs on the Titanic? What you need is a story and a value. Appealing to aspirational fairness may do better than reliance on depressing fact. However, such issues aside, the session was bright; took a refreshing view of the future; and would merit an hour of your time looking at the YouTube video. Click on the link now while you are thinking about it.

The final issue is the one raised by Victoria Law Foundation’s executive director. Where do we go from here? You could not get better in the translation of a traditional international conference online. For example, I happened to have attended every biennial International Legal Aid Group conference since the first in 1975. This achieved the standards of the best. But it also displayed the unavoidable flaws of the structure. Conferences are always at the mercy of who shows up and volunteers. And, the more eminent the speakers, the less control the organisers have realistically over what they say and (in my experience) when they will reveal to you what they are going to contribute. So, at its worst (and this did not happen here), you get a session that combines presentations on public defenders in Taiwan, paralegals in South Africa, online courts in China and a few other waifs and strays. This is the nature of the traditional academic conference where, historically and before Covid, you could only get expenses if you contributed. So, you certainly faced a tendency toward the pinball approach of bells, whistles – and gaps.

In a physical conference, the agenda is, however, only one part of the package. It is, as everyone generally acknowledges, the human interactions over coffee, meals and even outside dull sessions, that count just as much if not more. Online needs more underlying coherence – and this was a conference which, realistically, could only have been online.

My suggestion is that one advance would be in the production (Yes. I know it would be difficult but it could be done) of an overall paper of no more than 1600 words (4 pages of A4, double spaced, arial 11 to be precise) that raised the key issues in a way that could hold things together and allow speakers to put themselves is some sort of context. So, for example, you would start the tech session with a summary of, say, the top six issues into which the speakers could contextualise their contributions.

Online (and, indeed, off it) you need to feel that an overall intelligence is pulling everything together so that, returning to the words of the song, we can feel that the organiser becomes like the pinball wizard – substance and process as one. S/he‘ … stands like a statue; Becomes part of the machine; Feeling all the bumpers; Always playing clean; … plays by intuition; The digit counters fall; That deaf dumb and blind kid; Sure plays a mean pinball!’ More than bells, whistles and gaps.

But you may not agree.

Participants in the last session were Canada’s Trevor Farrow; Australia’s Geoff Mulherin and Suzie Forrell; America’s Becky Sandefur and Emily Taylor Poppe; London’s Hazel Genn.

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