A technology-based product or service must be simple and easy to use when providing legal information. The functionality of the offering is fundamental to achieving access to justice. It is relatively simple for legal information to be available online, but if the user cannot understand it or there is too much irrelevant information, the user will likely struggle to find a solution or identify the next steps in their legal issue. Technology can provide ‘functionality that avoids confusing information or explanations’ (The Law Society, 2017, p60). This can be delivered by systems which do not think for the user, but instead provide support to the user by diagnosing a problem, providing information and indicating the next steps (Veenen, 2008, pp23-24). A user-friendly expert system can be as simple as using a guided pathway such as The Solution Explorer. A simple process such as this can ‘afford greater control over the reasoning process by forcing information supplied into a deductive structure’ (The Law Society, 2017, p60).
The simplicity of the technology can even extend to something as basic as the domain used for that website. A dedicated legal information site should contain keywords that aid the user in identifying them as legal information websites, for example, “www.legislation.uk” (Mitee, 2017, p13). This may help potential users to identify the website as a legal information site and easily remember the domain name should they wish to return to the site especially if they lack digital proficiency. On the other hand, using a complicated domain name can cause confusion and have a negative impact on search engine optimisation ().
The use of technology is not new to law and does not always change much. For example, telephoning a client instead of meeting them in person does not change the substance of the advice or its meaning. Reading legal information on a website is not different from reading identical information from a book. What technology has done, and will continue to do, is radically shift how legal services are delivered (Smith and Paterson, 2014, p10). Geography is less of a barrier to access to justice, allowing for convenient delivery of a legal service, if a user needs support they can instantly access it wherever they are. They also have more choice; a user could use online based support such as information sites or contact human support through the medium of technology.
As technology develops these choices will only expand but it is important to acknowledge that understanding of the law is something different from accessing it (Ginevra Peruginelli, 2016, p110). This emphasises the need for human interaction within the process to provide that understanding and also the soft skills, creativity and gut feeling that humans can provide (Leijtens, 2015, p9).
To ensure the technology offered to the user is as effective as possible it is imperative that the product/service is designed effectively. Design-thinking can be helpful here, one of the approaches adopted by Margaret Hagan’s Open Lab at Stanford Law School is the “illustrative law” legal design approach. This aims to take text heavy legal resources and convert them into user friendly visually palpable displays (Ursel, 2017, p34; Hagan). With the right design, technology can enhance resources and make them readable and useful, increasing the chance that a user interacting with it can access the legal information they need.
It is equally important that legal technology is designed with the client at the centre of the service. Smith and Paterson found that advice hotlines worked well for more educated and settled clients but worked poorly for those in vulnerable groups (Smith and Paterson, 2014, p85). Access to justice issues are mostly commonly faced by the most vulnerable in society and if these initiatives are aimed at them, they must function well for them too (Beqiraj and McNamara, 2014, p.14; Carneiro and Novais, 2014, p.78; Hou et al., 2017, p.2511). The lack of legal capability of these groups must be acknowledged, the idea that technology can compensate for this underestimates the centrality of the user to the process (James and Palmer, 2016, p.220). The internet can certainly increase knowledge of rights, but this does not equate to confidence or ability to act on those rights (Denvir and Balmer, 2014).
- Beqiraj, J. and McNamara, L, ‘International Access to Justice: Barriers and Solutions’ Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law Report, (2014)
- Carneiro, D. and Novais, P. ‘Making Justice More Accessible’ (2014) ICEGOV ’14: Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance
- Denvir, C and Balmer, N J, ‘Digitally (De)Faulted? How do young people use the Internet to acquire knowledge of their rights?’ (University College London 2014)
- Hagan, Margaret, http://www.openlawlab.com/about/ (Date accessed: 17/04/2020)
- Hou, Y et al. ‘Factors in Fairness and Emotion in Online Case Resolution Systems’ Human Computer Integration’(2017) ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems
- Kenrick, James, and Palmer, Ellie, ‘Access to Justice for Young People: Beyond the Policies and Politics of Austerity.’ in Access to Justice: Beyond the Policies and Politics of Austerity. Ed. Ellie Palmer, Tom Cornford, Audrey Guinchard and Yseult Marique (Hart Publishing, 2016)
- Leijtens, N, ‘Design Thinking and the future of Law: Finding the balance between knowledge, processes, and the use of technology’ (2015) Knowledge Management
- Mitee, L. E, ‘Towards enhanced public access to legal information: a proposal for official networked one-stop legal information websites’ (2017) European Journal of Law and Technology, 8(3)
- Peruginelli, Ginevra, ‘Law Belongs to the People: Access to Law and Justice’ (2016) Legal Information Management 16.
- Smith, R and Paterson, A, ‘Face to Face Legal Services and their Alternatives: Global Lessons from the Digital Revolution’ (2014) White Report
- The Law Society, Capturing Technological Innovation in Legal Services, (2017)
- UK Government, www.legislation.uk (Date accessed: 18/04/2020)
- Ursel, Susan, ‘Building Better Law: How Design Thinking can help us be better Lawyers, meet new challenges, and create the future of law’ (2017) Windsor Yearbook of Access to Justice, 34(1)
- Veenen, J. V ‘Online Integrative Negotiation Tools for the Dutch Council for Legal Aid’ (2008) Proceedings of the 5th International Workshop on Online Dispute Resolution (ODR Workshop ’08)