Pro bono legal services: An online model

A version of this article was originally published as a shortlisted submission to the 2017 Colin Biggers & Paisley Foundation #A2JPrize.

Access to justice could be improved by using technology to create an online, pro-bono legal service that integrates online self-help, virtual lawyers and para-professional assistance. This service would empower the community by equipping them with the tools they need to seek and achieve better justice outcomes when they face legal problems. This article will outline a model for an online pro-bono legal service for assisting people with traffic infringements. This area is important because expensive fines resulting from traffic infringements can have dire effects on financially disadvantaged members of society. For example, infringements may accumulate and lead to suspension of driver’s licence, which may cause unemployment and further disadvantage.

 

Community need for online legal services

Online legal services would assist members of the community to overcome common barriers to in accessing legal services. The most common reasons people do not take action to address their legal problems is because they believe it would cost too much, take too much time, and be too stressful. An online legal service could address these barriers by lowering costs, increasing efficiency and offering services in a user-friendly format. Offering online legal services is consistent with the increasing consumer demand for virtual, instantaneous services as demonstrated by the rise of services such as Uber and AirBnB. An online legal service would also not be constrained by geographical location or traditional office hours. This flexibility would make it accessible to a broader demographic than traditional community legal centres. The benefits of the online approach are already being enjoyed by virtual law firms (For example, Nest Legal and Hive Legal). However, this yet to transfer into pro-bono practice, despite the potential benefits to the community in improving access to justice.

 

Online self-help

Even if community legal centres received more funding, it is unlikely that they would be able to offer free advice to everyone who receives a traffic infringement. By making legal information accessible online, some clients (especially those who are educated and have committed minor offences) would be empowered to solve their own legal problems. This is consistent with the finding that consumers increasingly prefer to solve problems by informing themselves on a topic through internet searches and then applying this knowledge to their problem, rather than seeking in-person advice.[1] Thus, providing legal information online is impactful and valuable to clients.

An online self-help website (with a phone application version) for traffic infringements would inform the user of their options are at each stage of the infringements process in accessible language. Firstly, the website would prompt clients to enter the details of the infringement’s circumstances and upload their documents (such as charge sheets or summons). Secondly, it would provide personalised advice though artificial intelligence technology. As the website grows and obtains the details of thousands of cases, it would use big data to make predictions based on previous cases. This would improve the accuracy and quality of its advice. The system would be adaptive and self-learning, so that it can offer a tailored experience to each client.  The website would be simple and intuitive to use, as its design would draw upon user experience techniques, prototyping and user-testing.

Once the client has explored their options and decided on a course of action, the website could provide them with personalised documents to assist them with their case, such as a letter contesting a fine or an application for a payment plan. Some criticize automated online document services, arguing that they can be harmful because they are unable to understand the client’s circumstances. However, this underestimates the capacity of technology. As explained by Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind:

‘A computerized document assembly system is . . . able to select and delete appropriate words, sentences and paragraphs and then generate a polished document that represents one among many millions of possible permutations.’[2]

Thus, by providing online self-help service, lawyers and law firms would empower clients to help themselves solve their legal problems and to make fully informed choices about their legal wellbeing.

 

Virtual Lawyers

Although online self-help would assist many people, it would not replace lawyers entirely. Some clients will require the assistance of a human legal practitioner, especially in matters involving vulnerable clients with accumulated infringements and upcoming court appearances. If a client is unable to solve their problem through online self-help, the website would direct them to schedule a video link meeting with a lawyer. The system would automatically send the details and documents relating to the client’s matter (already entered into the database at the self-help stage) to the lawyer so that they have the required background information. During the video link meeting, the lawyer would interview the client, provide them with legal advice, and, if necessary, they could take on their case and provide them with legal representation.

The website would have a network of lawyers who take on matters on a freelance basis. Even busy lawyers with full-time jobs could potentially commit to volunteering in this capacity as their physical presence is not required and the hours would be flexible. The virtual lawyers would be connected as an online legal community through technologies such as cloud-based file management systems, social network groups, or through the website itself. The network would include a forum for lawyers to ask each other questions, exchange skills and collaborate. Lawyers may be involved as volunteers or as paid staff if funding was available.

 

Para-professional assistance

A final suggestion for this online pro-bono service is that it draw upon the assistance of para-professionals when the valuable time of a lawyer is not necessary. Law student volunteers may contribute by writing content for the self-help materials and providing administrative support to the virtual lawyers. They may also assist clients at the self-help stage by reviewing the letters and legal documents drafted by the website software. Law students could also provide legal information to clients through a live chat feature on the website. Integrating technology with both professional and para-professional assistance would enable the website to provide appropriate services for the matter at hand.

Advancements in technology have provided exciting new possibilities for the legal services industry. An online pro-bono legal service for traffic infringements with both self-help and virtual lawyers could use this new technology to improve the accessibility of legal services and thus help people achieve better justice outcomes.

 

[1] Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind The Future of the Professions (Oxford University Press, First Ed, 2015) 129.

[2] Ibid, 130.

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