Signposts from New Zealand

New Zealand and the United Kingdom have historically had close ties of economy and politics. These were closer, of course, before the UK turned its face to Europe and shafted the Kiwi agricultural economy in the 1970s. But, now we may grow back together again as small island nations outside the major trading blocs. Whatever happens at a macro level, there is much to learn (in all jurisdictions, not only the UK) from a recently published New Zealand study, Online Legal Information Self-Help in Aotearoa: an agenda for action by David Turner and Bridgette Toy-Cronin of the University of Otago.  

The first value of the report is that it provides an excellent summary of developments in the field – orientated, in particular, to the US as well as Australia (especially Justice Connect) and New Zealand itself (eg CitizenAI). The use of technology is moving very fast – particularly in response to the new challenges of Covid 19. Developments are sometimes really hard to uncover: they are scattered through websites; passing references in reports; and signalled on social media platforms like twitter. Right now, there is a real value in anyone in any jurisdiction producing their report on what is happening and their selection of underlying themes.  Got a group of students or volunteers; a spare day or two yourself? Well, you could do little better than to produce your own assessment of developments and the issues that arise. Because the more perspectives we can get, then the more we will understand of this fractured landscape.

The focus of the report is online legal information and self-help, summarised as OLISH.  The authors freely admit that: ‘The landscape of online delivery of legal information and assistance is larger than this. Developments occurring in the for profit and not-for-profit sectors include: Online dispute resolution tools;  Legal assistance delivered digitally by a person;  Self-service (as opposed to self-help) tools where agencies require people to perform administrative processes online without assistance (for example, immigration forms); Commercial and ‘lead-generating’ online help (for example, information provided by law firms as a means of reaching clients).  Our focus, however, is the provision of online legal information and self-help tools by government, community organisations, and social enterprises which are designed to help empower people to know and exercise their legal rights.’

I want to raise a point here – not as criticism but for debate. Homing in on OLISH as defined gives a focus to the report. However, it tends to diminish the links that might otherwise be made in a number of different directions. The authors are themselves aware of the problem: ‘OLISH .. needs to be pursued as a complementary strategy to in-person services. Effective OLISH can relieve some of the burden on providers of information and/or advice, by delivering information to those with good digital access and capability, allowing in-person services to be reserved for those who cannot successfully utilise OLISH.’ Personally, I might advance CLASS or combined legal assistance support services as the appropriate focus but pick your own acronym. You can see the point.

From the point of view of a policy-maker or a provider, automated online assistance must be integrally linked to individual help. The integration of the two approaches is crucial. The authors note how users may be helped informally by others to solve their problems where they lack the necessary skills and language etc. Many a lawyer has reached for a textbook or website aimed at their clients for assistance. A product like Citizenship Works in the US helps an individual or an organisation through the process of handling a citizenship application through a common process. The first effect of Covid 19 has been to accelerate the rush towards better practice management and intake but those initiatives will broaden out in time to impact on user-orientated services – particularly in the area of dealing with intake. This link between user-facing and  back-office internal services is likely to be a motor for development.

There is another point – again not of criticism but for discussion. This is a 60 page report and, if it were longer, it would be different. It sums up with necessary conciseness the existing state of provision in New Zealand as follows: ‘The major sources of non-government OLISH come from two organisations: Community Law’s Online Manual (CLOM) and the Citizens Advice Bureau’s website (CAB). They both provide good quality information on a broad range of topics, despite both organisations having limited resource for the task. The CAB website has a question-and-answer style format which enables quick narrowing down of the problem and the finding of top-level information. The CLOM has good detailed information but requires the user to navigate the information using icons and menus.’

But, it might be valuable to descend a level of analysis and to look at these two sources of assistance in more detail. Do this and you start to grapple with Community Law’s Online Manual. This is a digital version of a Manual that ‘contains over 1000 pages of easy-to-read legal info, on just about every area of community and personal life. Re-released every year in July, the Manual provides comprehensive answers to common legal questions’. It is a major undertaking which gives linear coverage of your rights in excerpts from the printed text. The other source is Citizens Advice Bureau New Zealand. 

I tested both with the keywords ‘eviction’ and ‘tenant’. The CAB site came up with a good range of answers to potential variants of this question – including from both a tenant and landlord perspective. The Community Law site gave no answers to ‘eviction’ and on ‘tenants and eviction’ only a partial answer relating to ‘social housing tenants’ only. My hypothesis would be that it needs a better search facility and more investment to adapt to becoming electronic. That is no criticism. I bet it is a nightmare to produce every year on available resources. But, seeing the two together raises a question that certainly arises in the jurisdictions of the UK. Given that resources are so limited, how could those which exist be better co-ordinated? We have a comprehensive Citizens Advice site but it doesn’t link with specialist sites on housing, welfare benefits, law centres or others. What mechanism would facilitate this?

That question takes us to the second general value of this report. There desperately needs to be more co-ordination and leadership. The report identifies three possible ‘development pathways’ from international experience: ‘First, jurisdictional plans, usually led and funded by authoritative justice or legal aid agencies, which convene other organisations and people, and which may be implemented at the local or institutional level. Second, projects supporting innovative initiatives comprising a mix of institutes, academics, community organisations, and social impact entrepreneurs. Third, philanthropic legal service entities, which also partner with other organisations in the profession or community.’

The New Zealanders’ conclusion? ‘What is striking about the international review is the consistent theme from all jurisdictions that high level leadership and collaboration across the sector is needed to advance OLISH.’ Note the word ‘needed’ – not ‘provided’. How this might be done will, no doubt, be different in different jurisdictions. But, don’t we all need it? And the UK has no answer to how to where it will come from or how it could be provided. But, thank you, New Zealand, for pointing out the problem. Building agreement for the first step is where we should begin.

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