New technology can be intimidating for users, particularly in relation to legal issues where they may already feel out of their depth (Dorin and Clément-Grandcourt, 2020, p.42). The increased pressure on pro bono and legal centres alongside a lack of funding has hindered access to legal support for clients, and the sector needs to be responsive to this. Support at an early stage is really important because it allows problems to be dealt with effectively and efficiently (Ministry of Justice, 2019). Legal issues are often multi-faceted, and early intervention allows the client to deal with problems before they escalate. For example, using an equivalent to ‘related links’ on a platform could work as ‘flags’ to help a user identify further legal issues relevant to their situation that they had not previously considered.
Not all clients will need in-depth legal support, therefore there is a need to identify the potential scope of the support required at the beginning of a case (Ministry of Justice, 2019). For example, in Australia, Justice Connect’s Gateway project provides an online triage tool to enable the client to identify the nature of their issue and match them to an appropriate pro bono service (Smith, 2019, p. 34). This may be something to consider for the UK system; matching clients to an appropriate innovative service or pro bono provider if they need more in-depth support.
In addition to designing a simple and usable platform, it is inevitable that users will need access to digital support. Working alongside Good Things Foundation, a digital inclusion charity, the courts and tribunals service is planning on offering in-person and over-the-phone support services to assist users with online legal services (HM Courts & Tribunals Service, 2018). This initiative is currently being piloted and initial feedback is positive although it has been noted that people who used the service often had broader support needs such as emotional, procedural or legal (HM Courts & Tribunals Service and Good Things Foundation, 2020). As such, it is important to consider digital support alongside other traditional means of support and be aware of the fact that the lines are often blurred between the types of support. For example, it may be important for a user to see links to emotional support organisations on whichever digital platform they are using.
The use of technology is particularly challenging for vulnerable clients (Mossman and Associates cited in Phillips and Farrell, 2015, p. 135) and therefore, additional support may be needed. Vulnerable clients are among those most likely to lack basic digital skills, highlighting the need for intermediaries (Good Things Foundation, 2017). The Good Things Foundation has developed an online learning platform, Learn My Way, for users to learn and practice their digital skills. Notably, this website shows users how to perform basic legal tasks such as filling in benefits forms. However, Revolving Doors, a UK-based support charity, have indicated that face-to-face support is important in relation to digital assistance and that this should be provided by a local, accessible and trusted organisation (Revolving Doors, 2019). For example, the homelessness charity, St. Mungo’s, has implemented Digital Drop-In sessions as part of their Recovery College. The drop-in sessions are run by a ‘Digital Champion’, who is someone with a connection to the user who is digitally trained. The sessions focus on improving digital skills for vulnerable people so that they can independently use technology to support their own needs (St Mungo’s, 2019).
Advice hotlines appear to work well for settled clients but do not have the same effect for clients with complex problems and needs (Smith and Paterson, 2013, p. 85). Further, it is suggested that the best way to provide users with consistent support could be to have a companion-like guide on their phone that they can refer to whenever needed (Hagan, 2018, p. 223). However, only offering one method of support does not give effect to the many different types of user that a legal advice platform will attract. Support needs to be delivered in a number of ways and therefore any innovative service should consider using a range of support tools such as webchat, drop-in sessions and support lines. These tools may go a long way to help the user feel validated and understood.
2. St. Mungo’s – Digital Drop-Ins at Recovery College
3. Steps to Justice website
4. Citizens Advice website
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4. Ministry of Justice and HM Courts & Tribunals Service (2018) 18th January 2018 to 29th March 2018, Fit for the future: transforming the Court and Tribunal Estate Consultation Paper [online]. London: Ministry of Justice. Available from: https://consult.justice.gov.uk/digital-communications/transforming-court-tribunal-estate/supporting_documents/hmctsstrategyapproachconsultation.pdf [Accessed 27 February 2020].
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6. Phillips, E. and Farrell, J. (2015) Queensland Community Legal Centres’ Use of Information Technology to Deliver Access to Justice. Legal Information Management [online].15(2), pp. 131-136. [Accessed 14 January 2020].
7. Good Things Foundation and Yates, S. (2017) The Real Digital Divide? [online]. Good Things Foundation. Available from: www.goodthingsfoundation.org/sites/default/files/research-publications/ofcom_report_v4_links.pdf [Accessed 3 April 2020].
8. Revolving Doors Agency (2019) Response to Justice Select Committee’s consultation on Access to Justice [online]. Revolving Doors Agency. Available from: www.revolving-doors.org.uk/file/2361/download?token=sZrNMjGu [Accessed 5 April 2020].
9. St Mungo’s (2019) Annual Review 2018-19: Changing lives for the better [online]. St Mungo’s. Available from: www.mungos.org/app/uploads/2019/11/St-Mungos-Annual-Review-2018-19-Digital-version.pdf [Accessed 5 April 2020].
10. Smith, R. and Paterson, A., (2014) Face to Face Legal Services and their Alternatives: Global Lessons from the Digital Revolution. White Report.
11. Hagan, M. (2018) A Human-Centred Design Approach to Access to Justice: Generating New Prototypes and Hypotheses for Intervention to Make Courts User-Friendly. Indiana Journal of Law and Social Equality [online].6(2). Available from: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3186101 [Accessed 23 March 2020].