Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Seeking legal help online: the challenge of design

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In December 2020 Roger Smith, who runs the excellent Law, Technology and Access to Justice website (at https://law-tech-a2j.org/,) posted an item about an important report from Australia.

Written by Jo Szczepanska and Emma Blomkamp, and published by Justice Connect (a not-for-profit Law Charity, see https://justiceconnect.org.au/) their recently published report Seeking Legal Help Online –
Understanding the ‘missing majority’
offers a range of practical ideas on how to design self-help resources that can actually be used by those seeking help. In Smith’s words: “It puts Australian experience front and centre of global discussion of a key topic.”

The phrase ‘missing majority’ in the title refers to the fact that the majority of people will not or cannot afford to use the services of legal practitioners to assist in the resolution of disputes or other problems. However, in the words of the report “as the missing majority progressively adopts technology, there are increasing opportunities to find new models of providing cost-efficient and effective free legal assistance at scale”. The report aims to find a better understanding of the opportunities to assist the missing majority through online resources, recognising their limits as well as their potential.

The report sought to answer the following 5 questions:

  1. How do people search for legal help online? The first set of insights describes the variety and mixed results of searching techniques used by participants in this research.
  2. What is the self-help journey like? This looks at the difficulties of trying to solve problems on your own. For example legal jargon is confusing for most people who haven’t studied law; the rules and procedures of the legal system can be opaque; and the process to understand and resolve an issue can be incredibly time-consuming. Indeed the whole process can be highly stressful.
  3. How can different resources help and how are resources used? The report draws on participants’ own analyses and explanations of why they would select certain tools, when they would use them, and what combinations of resources would work best for them and their issue. Where self-help became overwhelming, participants would start looking for a professional to help them.
  4. How can resources be improved? This considered the shortcomings of existing legal resources and the behaviour exhibited by people as they try to decipher and then apply new knowledge. These insights highlight issues of access, trust, accessibility, appropriateness and usefulness.
    Unfortunately, many online legal resources remain limited in their design, simply putting online existing forms and leaflets. Some people with disabilities cannot access or use online legal resources at all because the resources have not been designed with their needs in mind. Resources often also contain overly technical and complex language.
  5. How do help-seekers define a legal problem? This part of the study draws attention to the question of how a diverse range of people who find themselves in need of legal information or assistance try to find that information. Overall, the stories from participants and examples from live searches and testing of resources highlight the differences and commonalities of searching for legal help and information online.

In the light of the findings from the empirical part of the study, the final section of the report presents a series of recommendations and design principles, offering guidelines for improving online legal self-help resources. The recommendations focus on how to involve people with lived experience of trying to use existing resources together with relevant professionals in funding, researching, designing, testing, implementing, promoting, and evaluating online self-help resources.

Suggestions in the report are tailored for a range of different target audiences: users, funders, service providers, and resource makers. They are grouped under five main headings:

  1. Invest in information design and user experience;
  2. Involve people with lived experience in making online resources
  3. Break down silos between sectors, organisations, communities, and self-help
  4. Establish communities of practice to support makers of online self-help resources
  5. Invest in consumer outreach, search engine optimisation, communications, and marketing.

This blog does not reflect the detailed ideas contained in the report. Anyone wanting to develop new online resources should read this report for its ideas about how this might be done in ways that would actually help. The scope for innovations seems almost limitless. Policy on access to justice needs to take self-help seriously.

(This entry has been adapted from the report’s Executive Summary.)

It can be downloaded at https://justiceconnect.org.au/about/digital-innovation/missing-majority-report/

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