Access and Technology: Challenge the Assumptions

By: Kathryn E. Thomson, PhD Candidate (UVic Law)

Technological change is happening at an astonishing pace and offering advancements in many fields.  In the justice system, we often bemoan that technology is passing us by, but this isn’t entirely the story.  Technology is having an impact on the justice system and, increasingly, technological solutions are being looked at for the access problem.  It is no surprise that, in an environment where time and resources are scarce, the belief that a well written website provides benefit for some expands to the assumption that a website will be the answer for many.  And, if a website can provide information, why not a resolution?  The narrative can quickly snow-ball into the notion that modernization through technology removes impediments and places the knowledge and ability to navigate and personalize the process directly into the hands of the individual.  Put another way, technology leads to knowledge transfer which leads to justice access. 

If you have read some of my previous blogs you will know that I recommend caution and, that before moving to a technological solution, the impact of technology be critically examined.  I believe we need to have a better understanding of whether and how technology creates opportunity for those seeking to access justice before rushing to accept that it will.  

To provide some background to the question of whether and how technology creates opportunities, in January 2015, I conducted a pilot study with the Law Foundation funded legal advocates working in B.C.  Legal advocates provide free assistant to individuals seeking legal information, and access to legal resources and services.  Those who seek the assistance of legal advocates do so for a number of reasons including financial and the fact that lawyers generally do not provide assistance on matters such as benefit issues or residential tenancy issues.   

The advocates were asked to take a survey, comprising of 13 multiple-part questions, focusing on two general themes: the use of technology by advocates in their role as advocates, and the use of technology by their clients in dealing with a legal problem.  Of the roughly 72 Law Foundation legal advocates, 15 responded to the survey.   In this blog, I will focus on a few results observed relating to the use of technology by clients of advocates. 

The advocates were asked whether they refer their clients to online sites.  The good news is that a large percentage of advocates (93%) do refer their clients to online sites.  In part, this indicates confidence that good information is available to help their clients address legal problems.  

But the news is not all good.  Advocates also expressed concern about the use of online sites to deliver services and information to individuals in legal need.  The concerns ranged from the practical barriers that may exist for many including limited ability to operate a computer and/or limited access of some to a computer or the internet.  Those of us with ready access to and understanding of computers and the internet may overlook the reality that access to and knowledge of how to use these resources is not universal.   Even when access to computers and the internet is available, other barriers may interfere with access including literacy, language, and mental, physical or emotional health. 

Another important factor is legal literacy.  Information available online may be well written and comprehensive.   However, for those experiencing a legal problem, it can be a significant challenge to contextualize their personal experience as a legal problem.   Lawyers are trained to contextualize problems into a legal framework.  We are trained on how to read law, legislation and how to pick out the legally relevant from the legally non-relevant.  For someone in the midst of a legal, personal problem, access to information does not, on its own, create capacity to take that knowledge and put it into a legal framework.  

Given the barriers described by the advocates, it is not surprising that less than 50% of the advocates reported their clients “sometimes” look at legal information online before first meeting with them, 31% of advocates reported their clients “rarely” look at information before their first meeting, and 23% of advocates report that their clients “never” look at information before their first meeting. 

Even when clients looked at information before meeting with the advocate, the advocates reported that it was of limited assistance to the client.  In response to the question “did it help your client understand their problem better”, 56% reported that it “rarely” or “never” helped and 33% reported it “sometimes” helped.  In response to the question “did it help the client communicate the issues to you”, 44% of the advocates reported it “rarely” helped and 44% reported it “sometimes” helped.  In response to the question “did it help the client prepare for the meeting with the advocate”, 56% of advocates reported it “rarely” helped and 44% reported it “sometimes” helped.  These are not encouraging numbers in terms of the potential benefits of accessing online legal information prior to seeing an advocate.   

 The results suggest that, at least for the group of individuals who find their way to a legal advocate, the availability of legal sites and legal information does not necessarily mean that these individuals can move forward independently to find a resolution to their legal problem.  

 This doesn’t mean that technology cannot and does not assist us in addressing the access to justice problem.  However, it points to the need to challenge assumptions about technology, especially the easy narrative that technology always leads to better results.