This article was originally published as a shortlisted submission to the 2017 Colin Biggers & Paisley Foundation #A2JPrize.
THE UNMET NEED
The unmet need for legal services sought by disadvantaged individuals requires immediate attention. This is exemplified in states such as Victoria, where only 51 per cent of people experiencing legal issues are likely to consult a legal or non-legal professional. Barriers disadvantaged individuals face in seeking legal assistance are multifaceted, and may relate to culture, physical and mental health, financial hardship, social problems, and geographical remoteness. Given how scant funding and resources are for legal assistance services across Australia, the opportunity for disadvantaged individuals to access justice becomes increasingly difficult to guarantee. This concern is acknowledged within the legal community, with the Law Council of Australia currently undertaking a comprehensive national report on impediments to justice in Australia, through The Justice Project, due in November 2017.
PROPOSAL – A CENTRALISED PLATFORM
Overall, Australian law firms make generous contributions within the community through the work of their lawyers, exceeding the global average for the amount of time their lawyers dedicate to pro-bono matters. Given this strong pro-bono culture, there is real value in encouraging, facilitating and utilising the efforts of law firms, by making it easier for legal professionals to connect with the public in pro-bono matters. A way this could be achieved is through the creation of a centralised online platform for pro-bono legal services, designed to be a one-stop online portal between those seeking access to justice and those wanting to provide pro-bono legal services.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
The way the online platform would operate is law firms would subscribe to the platform, through their commitment of offering pro-bono legal services. Law firms would be able to indicate on the platform the extent of their pro-bono services: areas of expertise, how many lawyers they can provide, time commitments, geographical scope of support, and other resources they are willing to donate. The areas of law covered on the platform would reflect those offered by subscribed law firms (family law, employment etc.). On the other end of the online platform would be people seeking legal assistance. People in genuine need of legal help could access the platform through an initial questionnaire, which records and processes their responses, including, relevant facts, legal issue(s), documents, complexity, urgency and desired outcome. An algorithm could be used to match the help being sought with legal services available. If an appropriate match occurs the law firm would be notified. Law firms wanting to undertake work with their matched client would then be connected to take on their matter. This may include providing legal advice, legal services, or legal representation, depending on the legal matter at hand.
Benefits to disadvantaged individuals seeking legal assistance
Having a centralised platform increases the likelihood of individuals receiving access to justice as their request for legal assistance is given the broadest possible reach to those offering pro-bono services. All that is required to access the portal is access to the internet and a device to fill out the questionnaire. This assists people disadvantaged by work and family commitments or geographical remoteness, in initially reaching out for legal support. Further, the platform if implemented, would have the ability to prioritise assistance according to urgency or status. This would ensure vulnerable groups (like victims of domestic violence) are prioritised on the platform so they are able to receive the quickest support.
Having a platform that provides an initial summary of information to pro-bono services also prevents delay, as there is opportunity for law firms to request additional or further information before providing the legal services. This ensures efficient use of both the client and professional’s time when communicating, without the need of halting or postponing legal work (e.g. rescheduling a meeting due to lack of documents). Further, having a record of information on the platform would save precious time for individuals in circumstances where there is a switch of the legal service provider (for whatever reason). This is because the new legal service provider could access the client’s information already on the platform, avoiding the need for the client to repetitiously relay all of their documents and information.
Benefits to the legal profession
A centralised online platform is beneficial to the legal profession as it has the capacity to be used by laws firms of all sizes and even community legal centres (CLC’s). This transcends lawyer’s pro-bono work beyond their own law firms into a larger network accessible through the platform, and generates the possibility for collaboration amongst different firms and CLC’s, assisting individuals experiencing multiple legal issues, unable to be resolved by a single law firm alone.
The platform also provides convenience and flexibility for subscribed law firms as it removes the need to search for matters beyond the platform, enabling firms to redirect more of their resources into their pro-bono services. Law firms can also adjust their commitments throughout the year, ensuring pro-bono matters they receive fit productively within their work regime. The platform also has potential to mobilise the efforts of the many law students eager in gaining legal experience. Law students may be able to subscribe to the platform, allowing them to be paired with a law firm undertaking a pro-bono matter. This is a positive outcome for law students, as they will gain experience in practical legal work, opportunities to network with the legal profession, as well as promoting a probono culture through developing their sense of responsibility within society in assisting the disadvantaged. This is also a positive outcome for law firms as they are able to utilise the work of law students, assigning them work to undertake. This allows law firms to extend their efforts, which may enable them to take on more probono matters.
The creation of a centralised online platform for pro-bono legal services will provide tangible benefits to all those involved including disadvantaged individuals seeking access to justice, legal professionals and law students across Australia. Although additional issues will need to be addressed alongside the platform such as privacy, criteria to qualify as disadvantaged, the scope and design of the questionnaire and its operation at either the state or federal level, the improvements to access to justice offered by such a platform looks promising.
About Alex Hobson
Alex recently graduated in October 2017 with a Bachelor of Arts/Laws (Honours) from Monash University. He has interest in areas concerning social justice and pro-bono work. Follow Alex on Linkedin.