New Zealand Law Society - Legal information for the people

Legal information for the people

Legal information for the people

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Imagine a new symbol of justice for our future legal system. How shall we make over Lady Justice? First, imagine not a presiding figure but someone using the system – a claimant. A single mum perhaps. In one hand, not a sword but a reusable shopping bag full of files. In the other, retain the scales – it’s all about balance after all: job, kids, debt, divorce settlement, etc. In the same hand, a smartphone, browser open on a government website. And jammed between her crooked elbow and side, a stack of forms. Oh, and keep the blindfold.

Whether or not this would be a fair symbol for the future, New Zealand’s civil justice system is heading to a place where self-help, with assistance from community services, will be the most important bridge across the justice gap. And public legal information – the information on our new Lady Justice’s smartphone and forms – will be as important to justice as the vastly more sophisticated legal databases used by lawyers.

Preparing for this new legal information age is of national importance. We at the University of Otago Legal Issues Centre (UOLIC) are exploring ways to better collaborate and coordinate ways to raise New Zealand’s legal information game.

Self-closing the justice gap

As in many jurisdictions, New Zealand’s justice gap is both serious and nothing new. In 2006, a National Survey of Unmet Legal Needs and Access to Services estimated about one third of people in New Zealand with serious problems had unmet legal needs, and this cavity was probably nothing new then.

As the same 2006 study pointed out, a significant proportion of people with unmet legal needs experience stress, ill-health, loss of confidence and income. An invisible ailment, unresolved legal issues are like a concussion for those affected, and for society.

What are the realistic ways to close the gap? Access to more lawyers is an unlikely solution in the current market. Private representation is expensive and civil legal aid is severely restricted and unlikely to increase significantly. Lawyers on the civil legal aid scheme are an endangered species. The number of registered civil legal aid lawyers dropped 54% between 2011 and 2016, leaving just 150 registered providers in Auckland and 20 in Otago, according to our 2018 pilot study about the availability of free and low-cost legal services. Efforts such as those to establish pro bono triage systems will help, but will not be enough.

Similarly, a more efficient justice system will only partially help, and moreover will come with a greater need for legal information. New Zealand’s justice institutions are working under tight budgets and increasingly looking to self-help and online systems, as are governments internationally. These systems will encourage or require self-help. Online dispute resolution systems overseas require applicants to file their claims themselves, and negotiate with the opposing party, before allowing them access to adjudication. Just as consumers have become their own bankers and traders, they are becoming their own dispute resolvers, and will need the information and tools to do this.

So, the justice gap will likely need to be self-closed, by people with complex legal needs, assisted by the community organisations who are already stretched and working hard. The Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB), for example, saw its website visits rise from 388,050 in 2012 to 1,910,116 in 2018 (June year ends).

A national effort

Coordination of legal information initiatives across New Zealand will be an important first step in preparing for the future. New Zealanders already have access to volumes of legal information, among which are excellent sources of information, such as the CAB, which recently launched an impressive new website, and Community Law, with its comprehensive law manual. Some government websites are clear and user-focused. New online tools are springing up as people experiment, with an entrepreneurial spirit.

But there are risks to manage and opportunities for improvement. People thinking and researching on the provision of legal information point out two essential qualities. First, can people find the information easily and on time? Second, will the information help a person actually solve their dispute (bearing in mind they may be “legally concussed”)?

Ironically, there is a risk that finding the right information could get harder. The enthusiasm for legal tech and online solutions may see more private, unregulated providers (that is, providers outside of New Zealand’s legal profession) entering the space with experimental and unverified information and tools. This is great from the point of view of innovation, but can increase the search frustration and stress for people looking for information.

Opportunities include the availability of increasing research on legal design, which is about flipping legal services so they focus on the needs of the user – such as our new version of Lady Justice. Lessons from fields such as psychology tell us how being under stress and time poor affects our ability to process information, our capacity for decision making, and our ability to manage a problem through to a resolution. These are the challenges we should have in mind when designing our legal information and tools.

What should we aim for?

Other jurisdictions, when developing their high-level access to justice strategies, have prioritised improving access to legal information through co-ordination and collaboration.

Many of these collaborations have resulted in central hubs or portals, the aims of which are to give people one starting place to find information, advice, and tools, in as user-friendly a way as possible. The portals all share a common history of building on existing initiatives and collaborative networks.

A young woman drinking coffee and looking at a phone

Perhaps the most ambitious of these initiatives is the Legal Navigator portal, an international development, powered by Microsoft artificial intelligence. Alaska and Hawaii are piloting the portal, which is a national initiative led by America’s largest legal aid funder, the Legal Services Corporation. Hawaii and Alaska were chosen as pilot grounds because their justice systems face geographical, social, and cultural challenges, and in tackling these had already developed community-based legal networks and legal tech solutions. These initiatives were ripe to be brought together through an innovative portal service.

Legal Navigator’s big innovation is to help people engage with legal services in everyday language. People will type their problems in their own words, and the system will then help them know if it is a legal problem and, if so, point them to the most appropriate assistance – whether legal aid, the courts, lawyers, or community stakeholders. Microsoft, which reportedly dedicated US$2 million to the project, developed the navigator’s machine learning technology, which uses the latest natural language processing. The more it is used, the better it will get at understanding colloquialisms and slang, identifying the legal issue involved, and finding the most appropriate resources.

Not quite as high-tech, but still impressive, is Ontario’s Steps to Justice website. As the name suggests, this is an action focused, step by step, legal information site, with smart search capability and “guided pathways” which bring users down certain pathways of actions via automated questions. Steps to Justice grew out of Community Legal Education Ontario (CLEO), an independent, community-based, public legal education and information organisation. The initiative was developed through extensive collaboration with Ontario’s community providers. CLEO also developed an online hub that provides legal resources for community organisations and frontline workers.

Closer to home, coordinated efforts have progressed in Australia. Visitors to the New South Wales LawAccess website will also find “guided pathways” as well as more traditional navigation menus. LawAccess refers to avenues of legal help, and has a telephone line to legal help. It’s a NSW government initiative in conjunction with Legal Aid NSW, Law Society of NSW, NSW Bar Association, and Community Legal Centres.

In 2016, an Access to Justice review identified the need for a similar portal in the state of Victoria, which would build on existing coordination and shared databases. A platform known as CLEAR (Community Legal Education and Reform), enabled providers to upload and share information, and check for existing information when considering a new legal information project. Guidelines were developed to assist people who produce or maintain online community legal information.

Justice Connect, an Australian community legal network, connects people with legal help, via an online referral tool that links to legal assistance schemes in each state. The same website also provides legal information, particularly self-help resources for people dealing with legal processes and tribunals, without legal help.

The University of Otago Legal Issues Centre Initiatives

The UOLIC is exploring ways to prepare New Zealand’s legal information eco-system for the future. Through our own research and examining approaches internationally, we have identified several ways to make legal information more accessible and useful.

One is to explore how best to quickly guide people to high quality legal information and low cost or free advice, relevant to their dispute. Secondly there is a need to provide information and tools to help people use New Zealand’s courts and tribunals and manage their dispute from start to finish.

Underlying these aims is a need to build collaboration. One way is to provide a hub for legal information creators, through which to provide coordination, feedback, and, importantly, user-testing data about the accessibility and clarity of the information produced.

Fortunately, the UOLIC is able to collaborate with a group who straddle the worlds of the novice lay person and the indoctrinated lawyer – law students. Our new A2J (Access to Justice) Connect student group is helping us review New Zealand’s legal information from a user perspective. They know just enough about the justice system to assess the quality of information while still being in the shoes of someone encountering the law for the first time. Sometimes, a little knowledge can be helpful instead of dangerous!

Our A2J Connect students are passionate about the future of New Zealand’s civil justice and we hope they will go on to make an impact in this area when they graduate. We are also looking forward to engaging with organisations in New Zealand with the same passion, as we search for ways to prepare for a new legal information age. If your organisation shares an interest in this field, I would love to hear from you.

David Turner is a Professional Practice Fellow at the University of Otago’s Legal Issues Centre.

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