New Zealand Law Society - Online legal information providers look forwards

Online legal information providers look forwards

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Great adventures often begin with the assembling of an eclectic band of people unsure of what they are getting themselves into, who then overcome obstacles to unite and save the world. While saving the world was not an official agenda item, it was in a similar spirit that the University of Otago Legal Issues Centre (UOLIC) convened an online legal information forum in Wellington on 25 July, in what could be the first step towards more cooperation among those whose mission includes solving people’s legal problems online.

The 16 forum participants were from the community and government sectors, including the Citizens Advice Bureau, Community Law, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, the New Zealand Legal Information Institute and the New Zealand Law Society, as well as individuals from the social entrepreneurial sector. The meeting was kindly sponsored by the Michael & Suzanne Borrin Foundation.

This was the first known time such a group has come together in New Zealand to discuss online legal information (OLI). It was a diverse and passionate group, each participant bringing their own blend of skills and experience to the discussion. What they had in common was a belief in OLI’s ability to empower people to deal with their legal problems, and enhance democracy, education and access to justice.

Like Marvel’s Avengers, the group assembled to tackle a growing and important challenge for New Zealand: the rising demand for online legal information due to the widening civil justice gap and the need for people to ‘self-help’ when solving legal problems. Or, in a more positive light, it was a chance to think about how to make the most of opportunities presented by developments such as new technology and the emerging discipline of legal design.

State of the nation

Before delving into future possibilities, the group began with a ‘state of the nation’ style analysis of OLI in Aotearoa. What’s it like to open a web browser with the intent to solve a legal problem in New Zealand? And what’s it like for the people ‘behind the screen’ trying to deliver that information? The answers were optimistic but aware of significant challenges.

On the upside, there is already a good base of quality OLI in New Zealand, which is trustworthy and well explained – the result of considerable effort by dedicated organisations and individuals.

On the downside, the good information lives among a lot of misinformation. And even after cutting through the noise to a good website, users are expected to not only be reasonably literate in English, but also be capable of absorbing large amounts of text and converting it into action. Some might experience a bewildering maze with no guide to light the pathway through a wide range of options: a community website? Reddit? A government department? Or even a paid online service?

For some users, there is no maze or choice – just an absence of information for and about their issues. An urgent need was for OLI that is not only translated into Te Reo, but which covers Māori issues. In the same vein, New Zealand has a growing diversity of communities with different languages and needs. Many of the forum participants were receiving requests for OLI that would help specific communities.

Key challenge

Meeting demand for varied and niche information in a sector with stretched resources, was identified as a key challenge for OLI providers. While there is a strong base of talented people with a solid history of creating OLI, they have insufficient resources and time to take advantage of new developments and create the growing list of new materials that people have requested. This is not to mention the evergreen challenges of creating OLI – keeping it current with constantly changing law and policy, balancing accuracy with readability, and trying to simplify information about complex institutions and laws that are not themselves user-friendly.

Currently, OLI providers are mostly tackling these challenges separately, and so a source of optimism was the prospect of working together to find new solutions. Could we work together to discover the online needs of different communities? Can we share data and research? Can we link virtual arms to guide a person from the start of a legal dispute to its satisfactory resolution? There are many ways of pooling our strengths, and the UOLIC is exploring ways we can facilitate the work of OLI providers and improve the experience of people in search of online answers to their legal problems.

This was our first time in the same physical location and so we found more questions than answers about how to work together in the online world. Of course, cooperation requires overcoming barriers, especially when organisations have different objectives and time and resource pressures. But the group finished the day with a common goal of forming a stronger eco-system with better connected providers and users of OLI, and that’s a great start. Watch this online space!

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

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