An integrated online referral and booking system is not exactly the most sexy use of technology in the access to justice field. But, Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) claims that its new system, ORBIT, halves the time previously taken and extends the service provided by VLA and the community legal centres which are now using it. What is more, it is a noticeable step towards the ‘one stop shop’ legal services portal of the kind being developed around the world, notably with the US Legal Services Corporation’s pilots in collaboration with Microsoft in Alaska and Hawaii. The difference is that VLA seems to be approaching the end result as a serious of steps rather than as the result of a big bang. All very agile.
The project has been in the works from 2016 and is the product of a collaboration between VLA and Code for Australia, a not for profit, public-orientated consultancy that helps ‘government find new ways to address old problems’. VLA has worked with Code for Australia before in developing an online checker providing assistance via its website. That is a very public way of providing additional resources. Orbit provides a back end, away from public view, a further step towards the goal of a smoothly integrated delivery.
You can see a video presentation on ORBIT on youtube but beware: it is close on 40 minutes long. More accessible are various blogs from the Code for Australia team. The project was heralded in a more manageable four minute read in July last year and expanded in a six minute one in December. This reveals that Orbit is an acronym for Online Referral Booking Information Tool. It is described by Code for Australia’s Rikke Winther-Sorenson thus:
ORBIT helps staff and volunteers make accurate referrals across the legal assistance sector in Victoria. The tool has catalogued all Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) front-line services, the vast majority of Community Legal Centre (CLC) services and common non-legal services. It has the functionality to be an aid to triage, to guide inexperienced and experienced users alike to interrogate a legal matter and client circumstances appropriately.
Staff and volunteers can use the tool from their web browser to match people with the best service based on location, eligibility and problem type. They can easily share information about the referral to the client by SMS and email.
For VLA offices it is even possible to share appointment availability and have other VLA users book clients directly into a centralised calendar.
The bookings function systematise the process around appointment bookings within VLA, assists staff to administer their bookable services and SMS reminders are automatically sent to clients to remind them to attend appointments.
VLA’s website already shows the benefit of its collaboration with Code for Australia. It hosts a beta version of the legal aid checker. This covers housing and tenancy along with migration, wills and estates and personal injury. Tested with a query about housing disrepair, it took the user through a short guided pathway of options before leading to an excellent video on the website of Tenants Union Victoria.
So, ORBIT represents a further step towards one site that provides a proper triage – eligibility, referral and some measure of assistance for all. That is very much the goal articulated by the Legal Services Corporation. This is its President Jim Sandman on the launch of the Alaska and Hawaii pilots: ‘“Many people find it difficult to access legal services … The goal of the portals is to simplify that process by providing a single, statewide point of access to effective help for people needing civil legal assistance. Each user will be guided to available resources based on the nature of the matter and the user’s personal circumstances.’ In England and Wales, by contrast, there has been less systematisation of the process of referral but Lasa’s advicelocal.uk is a beginning – an online searchable database of local advice agencies.
The major tests for ORBIT will be its integration with the community legal centres and the extent to which it will work seamlessly in practice, potentially integrating a further range of non-legal agencies. Also crucial will be the issue of how to date VLA can maintain its database of information. John Cina, Victoria’s Associate Director, Access and Equity, said, ‘ORBIT makes it easier for people to get help with their problems. Early results indicated that it’s helping people in half the time that it takes our existing intake and triage tools. Right now, we’re testing it in our offices and in the community legal centres we work with; we intend to make it available to other organisations and to the general public through the internet.’