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As a first year law student, a handful of things are given to you (at least where I studied): a pre-fabricated schedule, a non-negotiable slate of professors, and a basic history lesson -- illustrated through individual cases.  During my first year, the professor I fought with the most was my property law teacher.  Now, I realize that it wasn’t her that I couldn’t accept; it was the implications of the worldview she presented.  She saw "property law" as a construct through which wealthy people protected their interests at the expense of those who didn’t have the means to defend themselves.  Every case -- from "fast fox, loose fox" on down -- was an example of someone's manipulating or changing the rules to exclude the poor from fighting for their interests.  It was a pretty radical position to accept and I, maybe to my own discredit, ignored it.

Then, I graduated. I began looking at legal systems around the world and tried to get a sense of how they actually function in practice. I found something a bit startling: they don’t function.  Or, at least not for most of us.

Justice: Inaccessible

At first glance, that may seem alarmist.  Honestly, it feels a bit radical to say.  But, then consider that in 2008, the United Nations issued a report entitled Making the Law Work for Everyone, which estimated that 4 billion people (of a global population of 6 billion at the time) lacked “meaningful” access to the rule of law.

Stop for a second. Read that again. Two-thirds of the world’s population don’t have access to rule-of-law institutions. This means that they lack, not just substantive representation or equal treatment, but even the most basic access to justice.

Now, before you write me, and the UN, off completely as crackpots, I must make some necessary caveats. "Rule-of-law institutions," in the UN report, means formal, governmentally sponsored systems.  The term leaves out pluralistic systems, which rely on adapted or traditional actors, many of which exist exclusively outside of the purview of government, to settle civil or small-scale criminal disputes.   Similarly, the word “meaningful,” in this context, is somewhat ambiguous. Making the Law Work for Everyone isn’t clear about what standards it uses to determine what constitutes "access," "fairness," or relevant and substantive law (i.e., the number and content of laws). While the report’s major focus was on adapting an appropriate level of formalism in order to create inclusive systems, the strategy of definitionally avoiding pluralism and cultural relativism while assessing a global standard of an internationally (and often constitutionally) protected service significantly complicates the analysis offered in the report.

What's causing the gap in access to justice?

So, let’s work from the basics. The global population has been rising steadily for, well, a while now, increasing the volume of need addressed by legal systems.  Concurrently, the number of countries has grown, and with them young legal systems, often without precedents or established institutional infrastructures. As the number of legal systems has grown, so too have the public's expectations of the ability of these systems to provide formalized justice procedures. Within each of these nations, trends like urbanization, the emergence of new technologies, and the expansion of regulatory frameworks add complexity to the number of laws each domestic justice system is charged with enforcing. On top of this, the internationalization and proliferation of treaties, trade agreements, and institutions imposes another layer of complexity on what are often already over-burdened enforcement mechanisms. It’s understandable, then, why just about every government in the world struggles, not only to create justice systems that address all of these very complicated issues, but also to administer these systems so that they offer universally equal access and treatment.

Predictably, private industry observed these trends a long time ago. As a result, it should be no surprise that the cost of legal services has been steadily rising for at least 20 years.  Law is fairly unique in that it is in charge of creating its own complexity, which is also the basis of its business model.  The harder the law is to understand, the more work there is for lawyers. This means fewer people will have the specialized skills and relationships necessary to successfully achieve an outcome through the legal system.

What’s even more confusing is that because clients' needs and circumstances vary so significantly, it’s very difficult to reliably judge the quality of service a lawyer provides.  The result is a market where people, lacking any other reliable indicator, judge by price, aesthetics, and reputation.  To a limited extent, this enables lawyers to self-create high-end market demand by inflating prices and, well, wearing really nice suits. (Yes, this is an oversimplification. But they do, often, wear REALLY nice suits).   The result is the exclusion (or short-shrifting) of middle- and low-income clients who need the same level of care, but are less concerned with the attire.  Incidentally, the size and spending power of the market being excluded -- even despite growing wealth inequality -- are enormous.

Redesigning legal services

I don’t mean to be simplistic or to re-state widely understood criticisms of legal systems.  Instead, I want to establish the foundations for my understanding of things. See, I approach this from a design viewpoint. The two perspectives above -- namely, that of governments trying to implement systems, and that of law firms trying to capitalize on available service markets -- often neglect the one design perspective that determines success: that of the user. When we’re judging the success of legal systems, we don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about what the average person encounters when trying to engage legal systems.  For most people, the accessibility (both physical and intellectual) and procedure of law, are as determinative of participation in the justice system as whether the system meets international standards.

The individuals and organizations on the cutting edge of this thinking, in my understanding, are those tasked with delivering legal services to low-resource and rural populations. Commercial and governmental legal service providers simply haven’t figured out a model that enables them to effectively engage these populations, who are also the world’s largest (relatively) untapped markets.  Legal aid providers, however, encounter the individuals who have to overcome barriers like cost, time, education, and distance to just preserve the status quo, as well as those who seek protection.  From the perspective of legal aid clients, the biggest challenge to accessing the justice system may be the fact that courts are often located dozens of miles away from clients' homes, over miserable roads.  Or the biggest challenge may be the fact that clients have to appear in court repeatedly to accomplish what seem like small tasks, such as extensions or depositions. Or the biggest challenge may be simply not knowing whom to approach to accomplish their law-related goals.  Each of these challenges represents a barrier to access to justice.  Each barrier to access, when alleviated, represents an opportunity for engagement and, if done correctly, an opportunity for financial sustainability.

Mobile points the way

None of this is intended as criticism -- almost every major service industry in the world grapples with the same challenges.  Well, with the exception of at least one: the mobile phone industry.  The emergence of mobile phones presents two amazing opportunities for the legal services industry: 1) the very real opportunity for effective engagement with low-income and rural communities; and 2) an example of how, when service offerings are appropriately priced, these communities can represent immensely profitable commercial opportunities.

Let's begin with a couple of quick points of information.  Global mobile penetration (the number of people with active cell phone subscriptions) is approximately 5.3 billion, which is 78 percent of the world’s population.  There are two things that every single one of those mobile phone accounts can do: 1) make calls; and 2) send text messages.  Text messaging, or SMS (Short Message Service), is particularly interesting in the context of legal services because it is a way to actively engage with a potential client, or a client, immediately, cheaply, and digitally.  There are 4.3 billion active SMS users in the world and, in 2010, the world sent 6.1 trillion text messages, a figure that has tripled in the last 3 years and is projected to double again by 2013.  That’s more than twice the global Internet population of 2 billion. It’s no exaggeration, at this point, to say that mobile technology is transformative to, basically, everything.  What has not been fully explored is why and how mobile devices can transform service delivery in particular settings.

Why is SMS so promising?

Something well-understood in the technology space is the value of approaching people using the platforms that they’re familiar with.  In fact, in technology, the thing that matters most is use. Everything has to make sense to a user, and make things easier than they would be if the user didn’t use the system.  This thinking largely takes place in technology spaces, in the niche called "user-interface design." (Forgive the nerdy term, lawyers. Forgive the simplicity, fellow tech nerds.)  These are the people who design the way that people engage with a new piece of technology.

In this way, considering it has 4.3 billion users, SMS has been one of the best, and most simply, designed technologies ever.  SMS is instant, (usually) cheap, private, digital, standardized, asynchronous (unlike a phone call, people can respond whenever they want), and very easy to use. These benefits have made it the most used digital text-based communication tool in human history.

User-Interface-Design Principles + SMS + Legal Services = ?

So. What happens when you take user-interface design thinking, and apply it to legal systems?  Recognizing that the assumptions underlying most formal legal systems arose when those systems originated (most of the time hundreds of years ago), how would we update or change what we do to improve the functioning of legal systems?

There are a lot of good answers to those questions, and moves toward transactional representation, form standardization (à la LegalZoom), legal process outsourcing (à la Pangea3), legal information systems (there are a lot), and process automation (such as document assembly) are all tremendously interesting approaches to this work.  Unfortunately, I’m not an expert on any of those.

FrontlineSMS:Legal

I work for an organization called FrontlineSMS, where I also founded our FrontlineSMS:Legal project.  What we do, at FrontlineSMS, is design simple pieces of technology that make it easier to use SMS to do complex and professional engagement.  The FrontlineSMS:Legal project seeks to capitalize on the benefits of SMS to improve access to justice and the efficiency of legal services.  That is, I spend a lot of my time thinking about all the ways in which SMS can be used to provide legal services to more people, more cheaply.

And the good news is, I think, that there are a lot of ways to do this.  Pardon me while I geek out on a few.

Intake and referral

Mobile Justice HousesThe process of remote legal client intake and referral takes a number of forms, depending on the organization, procedural context, and infrastructure. Within most legal processes, the initial interview between a service provider and a client is an exceptionally important and complex interaction. There are, however, often a number of simpler communications that precede and coordinate the initial interview, such as very basic information collection and appointment scheduling, which could be conducted remotely via SMS.

Given the complexity of legal institutions, providing remote intake and referral can significantly reduce the inefficiencies that so-called "last-mile" populations -- i.e., populations who live in "areas ...beyond the reach of basic government infrastructure or services -- face in seeking access to services. The issue of complexity is often compounded by the centralization of legal service providers in urban areas, which requires potential clients to travel just to begin these processes. Furthermore, most rural or extension services operate with paper records, which are physically transported to central locations at fixed intervals. These records are not particularly practical from a workflow management perspective and often are left unexamined in unwieldy filing systems. FrontlineSMS:Legal can reduce these barriers by creating mobile interfaces for digital intake and referral systems, which enable clients to undertake simple interactions, such as identifying the appropriate service provider and scheduling an appointment.

Client and case management

After intake, most legal processes require service providers to interact with their clients on multiple occasions, in order to gather follow-up information, prepare the case, and manage successive court hearings. Recognizing that each such meetings require people from last-mile communities to travel significant distances, the iterative nature of these processes often imposes a disproportionate burden on clients, given the desired outcome. In addition, many countries struggle to provide sufficient postal or fixed-line telephone services, meaning that organizing follow-up appointments with clients can be a significant challenge. These challenges become considerably more complicated in cases that have multiple elements requiring coordination between both clients and institutions.

Similarly, in order to follow up with clients, service providers must place person-to-person phone calls, which can take significant chunks of time. Moreover, internal case management systems originate from paper records, causing large amounts of duplicative data entry and lags in data availability.

To alleviate these problems, we propose that legal service providers install a FrontlineSMS:Legal hub in a central location, such as a law firm or public defender’s office. During the intake interview, service agents would record the client’s mobile number and use SMS as an ongoing communications platform.

By creating a sustained communications channel between service providers and clients, lawyers and governments could communicate simple information, such as hearing reminders, probation compliance reminders, and simple case details. Additionally, these communications could be automated and sent to entire groups of clients, thereby reducing the amount of time required to manage clients and important case deadlines. This set of tools would reduce the barriers to communication with last-mile clients and create digital records of these interactions, enabling service providers to view all of these exchanges in one easy-to-use interface, reducing duplicative data entry and improving information usability.

Caseload- and service-extension agent management

Although this article focuses largely on innovations that improve direct access to legal services for last-mile populations, the same tools also have the effect of improving internal system efficiency by digitizing records and enabling a data-driven approach to measuring outcomes. Both urban and rural service extension programs have a difficult time monitoring their caseloads and agents in the field. The same communication barriers that limit a service provider’s ability to connect with last-mile clients also prevent communication with remote agents. Mobile interfaces have the effect of lowering these barriers, enabling both intake and remote reporting processes to feed digital interfaces. These digital record systems, when used effectively, inform a manager’s ability to allocate cases to the most available service provider.

Applied to legal processes, supervising attorneys can use the same SMS hubs that administer intake and case management processes to digitize their internal management structures. One central hub, fed by the intake process that information desks often perform, and remote input where service extension agents exist can allow managers to assign cases to individual service providers, and then track them through disposition. In doing so, legal service coordinators will be able to track each employee’s workload in real time. In addition, system administrators will be able to look at the types and frequency of cases they take on, which will inform their ability to allocate resources effectively. If, for example, one area has a dramatically higher number of cases than another, it may make sense to deploy multiple community legal advisors to adequately address the area of greatest need.

Ultimately, though, SMS use in legal services remains largely untested.  FrontlineSMS is currently working with several partners to design specific mobile interfaces that meet their needs.  These efforts will definitely turn up new and interesting things that can be done using SMS and, particularly, FrontlineSMS.  These projects, however, are still largely in the design phase.

In addition to practical implementation challenges, there are a large number of challenges that lie ahead, as we begin to consider the implications of the professional use of SMS.  Issues such as security, privacy, identity, and chain of custody will all need to be addressed as systems adapt to include new technologies.  There are a number of brilliant minds well ahead on this, and we’ve even jury-rigged a few solutions ourselves, but there will be plenty to learn along the way.

The potential is great

What is clear, though, is that SMS has the potential to improve cost efficiencies, engage new populations, and, for the first time, build a justice system that works for the people who need it most.

I don’t think any of this will square me with my property-law professor.  I’m not sure I’ll ever fix property law.  But I do think that by reaching out to new populations using the technologies in their pockets, we can make a difference in the way people interact with the law. And even if that’s just a little bit, even if it just enables one percent more people to protect their homes, start a business, or pursue a better life, isn’t that worth it?

[Editor's Note: For other VoxPopuLII posts on using technology to improve access to justice, please see Judge Dory Reiling, IT and the Access-to-Justice Crisis; Nick Holmes, Accessible Law; and Christine Kirchberger, If the mountain will not come to the prophet, the prophet will go to the mountain.]

Sean Martin McDonald is the Director of Operations at FrontlineSMS and the founding Director of FrontlineSMS:Legal. He holds JD and MA degrees from American University. He is the author, most recently, of The Case for mLegal.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor-in-Chief is Robert Richards, to whom queries should be directed. The statements above are not  legal  advice or legal representation. If you require legal advice,  consult a  lawyer. Find a lawyer in the Cornell LII Lawyer Directory.

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This post explores ways in which information technology (IT) can enhance access to justice. What does it mean when we talk about "the access to justice crisis," and how can information technology help to resolve it? The discussion that follows is based on my 2009 book, Technology for Justice: How Information Technology Can Support Judicial Reform, particularly Part 4, on the role of information and IT in access to justice.

The normative framework for access to justice

International conventions guarantee access to a court. Everyone is entitled to a fair and public hearing by an independent tribunal in the determination of their civil rights and obligations or of any criminal charge against him or her, according to The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 14) and regional conventions like the The European Convention on Human Rights (article 6). In practice, the normative framework for access to justice does not provide us with clearly defined concepts.

The major barriers to access to justice identified in the scholarly literature are:

  • Distance, which can be a factor impeding access to courts. In many countries, courts are concentrated in the main urban centers or in the capital.
  • Language barriers, which are present when justice seekers use a language that is different from the language of the courts.
  • Physical challenges, like impaired sight and hearing and motor and cognitive impairments; these as a barrier to access are an emerging topic in the debate on technology support in courts.

These first three factors are all relatively straightforward and do not strike at the heart of the legal process.

  • Cost, for instance lawyers’ fees, court fees and other components of the price of access to justice, in many forms, has been identified as a factor affecting access to courts. However, cost is extremely hard to research and subject to a lot of ramifications. Because of this complexity, cost will not be discussed directly in this post.
  • Lack of information and knowledge, lack of familiarity with the court process, the complexity of legal and administrative systems, and lack of access to legal information are commonly identified factors (Cotterrell, The Sociology of Law p. 251; Hammergren, Envisioning Reform: Improving Judicial Performance in Latin America, p. 136). They are related because they all refer to the availability of information. They are the starting point for our discussion.

Potentially, information on the Internet can provide some form of solution for these problems, in two ways. First, access to information can support fairer administration of justice by equipping people to respond appropriately when confronted with problems with a potentially legal solution. Access to information can compensate, to some extent, for the disadvantage one-shotters experience in litigation, thereby increasing their chance of obtaining a fair decision. Second, the Internet provides a channel for legal information services, although experience with such online service provision is limited in most judiciaries. The discussion here will therefore focus on access to legal information and knowledge. Lack of information and knowledge as a barrier to access to justice is the focus for discussion in the first few paragraphs. The first step is to identify the barriers.

Knowledge and information barriers to access to justice

What are the information barriers individuals experience when they encounter problems with a potentially legal solution? We need empirical evidence to find an answer to this question, and fortunately some excellent research has been done, which may help us. In the U.K., Hazel Genn led a team that researched what people do and think about going to law. Their 1999 report is called Paths to Justice. A similar exercise led by Ben van Velthoven and Marijke ter Voert in The Netherlands, called Geschilbeslechtingsdelta 2003 (Dispute Resolution Delta 2003), was published in 2004. Although there are some marked differences between them, both studies looked at how people deal with “justiciable problems”: problems that are experienced as serious and have a potentially legal solution. Analysis of empirical evidence of people and their justiciable problems in England and Wales and The Netherlands produced the following findings with regard to these barriers:

  • Inaction in the face of a justiciable problem because of lack of information and knowledge occurs in a small percentage of cases.
  • Unavailability of advice negatively affects dispute resolution outcomes. It lowers the resolution rate. Cases in which people attempted to find advice were resolved with a higher rate of success than those of the self-helpers.
  • Respecting the inability to find advice: If people go looking for advice, the barriers to finding it have more to do with their own competencies, such as confidence, emotional fortitude, and literacy skills, than with the availability of the advice. In the United Kingdom, about 20 percent of the population is so poor at reading and writing that they cannot cope with the demands of modern life, according to data from the National Literacy Trust. In The Netherlands, the percentage of similarly low literacy is estimated at about 10 percent, according to data from the Stichting Lezen en Schrijven, the Reading and Writing Foundation.
  • Respecting incompetence in implementing the information received: Different competence levels will affect what can be done with information and advice. Competencies in implementing the information received include, for example, skills such as working out what the problem is, what result is wanted, and how to find help; simple case-recording skills; managing correspondence; confidence and assertiveness; and negotiating skills, according to research reported by Advicenow in 2005. Some people do not want to be empowered by having information available. They want assistance, or even someone to take over dealing with their problem. People with low levels of competence in terms of education, income, confidence, verbal skill, literacy skill, or emotional fortitude are likely to need some help in resolving justiciable problems.
  • Ignorance about legal rights exists across most social groups. Genn notes that people generally are not educated about their legal rights (Genn p. 102).
  • Respecting lack of confidence in the legal system and the courts and negative feelings about the justice system, Genn observes that people are unwilling voluntarily to become involved with the courts. People associate courts with criminal justice. People’s image of the courts is formed by media stories about high profile criminal cases (Genn p. 247). This issue is related to the public image of courts, as well as to the wider role of courts as setters of norms.

Information needs for resolving justiciable problems

After identifying knowledge and information barriers, the next step is to uncover needs for information and knowledge related to access to justice. Those needs are most strongly related to the type of problem people experience. The most frequently occurring justiciable problems are simple, easy-to-solve problems, mostly those concerning goods and services. People themselves resolve such problems, occasionally with advice from specialist organizations like the consumers’ unions (e.g., in the U.S., the National Consumers League). For more important, more complex problems, people tend to seek expert help more frequently. The most difficult to resolve are problems involving a longer-term relationship, such as labor or family problems. Any of the problems discussed in this section may lead to a court procedure. However, the problems that are the toughest to resolve are also the ones that most frequently come to court.

The first need people experience is for information on how to solve their problem. In The Netherlands, the primary sources for this type of information are specialized organizations, with legal advice providers in second place. In England and Wales, solicitors are the first port of call, followed by the Citizens’ Advice Bureaux. In both countries, the police are a significant source of information on justiciable problems. This is especially remarkable because the problems researched were not criminal justice issues.

If people require legal information, they primarily need straightforward information about rules and regulations. Next, they look for information about ways to settle and handle disputes once they arise. Information about court procedures is a separate category that becomes relevant only in the event people need to go to court.

Respecting taking their case to court: People need information on how to resolve problems, on rights and duties, and on taking a case to court. The justiciable problems that normally come to court tend to be difficult for people themselves to resolve. These problems are also experienced as serious. Many of them involve long-term relationships: family, employment, neighbors. Therefore, people will tend to go looking for advice. Some of them may need assistance. Most people seek and receive some kind of advice before they come to court.

In summary, information needs in this context are mostly problem-specific. Most problems are resolved by people themselves, sometimes with the help of information, or help in the form of advice or assistance. The help is provided by many different organizations, but mostly by specialized organizations or providers of legal aid and alternative dispute resolution (ADR).

Different dispute resolution cultures

There are, besides these general trends, interesting differences between England and Wales and The Netherlands. The results with regard to dispute outcome, for instance, show the following:

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The Netherlands has fewer unresolved disputes, more disputes resolved by agreement, and the rate of resolution by adjudication is half that of England and Wales. It looks as if there is more capacity for resolving justiciable problems in Dutch society than there is in society in England and Wales. Apart from the legacy of the justice system where there is a propensity to settle differences that Voltaire described in one of his letters, many factors may be at work in The Netherlands to produce a higher level of problem-solving capacity. One probable factor is the level of education and the related competence levels for dealing with problems and the legal framework. The functional illiteracy rate is only half that in the United Kingdom. Another factor may be a propensity to settle differences by reducing the complexity of problems through policies and routines.

Diversion or access, empowerment or court improvement?

The debate respecting whether diversion or court improvement should come first as an objective of legal policy, has been going on for some time. These are the options under discussion:

  • Preventing problems and disputes from arising;
  • Equipping as many members of the public as possible to solve problems when they do arise without needing recourse to legal action;
  • Diverting cases away from the courts into private dispute resolution forums; and
  • Enhancing access to legal forums for the resolution of disputes.

Genn argues that it is not an answer to say that diversion and access should be the twin objectives of policy, because they logically conflict. I would like to contribute some observations that could provide a way out of this apparent dilemma.

First, user statistics from the introduction of the online claim service Money Claim Online and the case study in Chapter 2.3 of my book suggest that changes in procedure facilitating access do not in themselves lead to higher caseloads. Changes observed in the caseloads are attributable to market forces in both instances.

The other observation is that Paths to Justice and the Dispute Resolution Delta clearly found that self-help is experienced as more satisfying and less stressful than legal proceedings. Moreover, resolutions are to a large degree problem specific. A way out of the dilemma could be that specialist organizations that make it their business to provide specific information, advice, and assistance, should enhance their role. There is an empirical basis for this way out in the research reported in Paths to Justice and the Dispute Resolution Delta. Although goods and services problems are largely resolved through self-help, out-of-court settlement, or ADR, nonetheless a fair number of them still come to court. Devising ways to assist individuals in informal problem solving and diverting them to other dispute resolution mechanisms can keep still more of these problems out of court. Even in matters for which a court decision is compulsory, like divorce, mediation mechanisms can sort out differences before the case is filed. Clearly, information on the Internet will provide an entry point for all of these dispute resolution services. Online information can thus help to keep as many problems out of court as possible. All this should not keep us from making going to court when necessary less stressful. Information can help reduce people’s stress, even as it improves their chances of achieving justice. The Internet can be a vehicle for this kind of information service, too.

Taking up this point, the next section focuses on courts and how information technology, particularly the Internet, can support them in their role of information providers to improve access to justice. Two strains concerning the role of information in access to justice run through this theme: information to keep disputes out of court, and information on taking disputes to court.

Information to keep disputes out of court

An almost implicit understanding in the research literature is that parties with information on the “rules of thumb” of how courts deal with types of disputes will settle their differences more easily and keep them out of court. Such information supports settlement in the shadow of the law. Most of this type of settlement will be done with the support of legal or specialist organizations. In the pre-litigation stage, information about the approaches judges and courts generally take to specific types of problems can help the informal resolution of those problems. This will require that information about the way courts deal with those types of problems becomes available. Some of the ways in which courts deal with specific issues are laid down in policies. Moreover, judicial decision making is sometimes assisted by decision support systems reflecting policies. In order to help out-of-court settlement, policies and decision support systems need to be available publicly.

Information on taking disputes to court

If a dispute needs to come to court, information can reduce the disadvantage one-shotters have in dealing with the court and with legal issues. This disadvantage of the one-shotters -- those who come to court only occasionally -- over against the repeat players who use courts as a matter of business, was enunciated by Marc Galanter in his classic 1974 article, Why the Haves Come Out Ahead: Speculations on the Limits of Legal Change. Access to information for individual, self-represented litigants increases their chances of obtaining just and fair decisions. Litigants need information on how to take their case to court. This information needs to be legally correct, as well as effective. By "effective," I mean that the general public can understand the information, and that someone after reading it will (1) know what to do next, and (2) be confident that this action will yield the desired result. In a case study, I have rated several court-related Web sites in the U.K. and in The Netherlands on those points, and found most of them wanting. My test was done in 2008, and most of the sites have since changed or been replaced. And although the U.K. Court Service leaflet D 184 on how to get a divorce got the best score, my favorite Web site is Advicenow.

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Such an information service requires a proactive, demand-oriented attitude from courts and judiciaries. Multi-channel information services, such as a letter from the court with reference to information on the court’s or judiciary’s Web site, can meet people’s information needs.

Beyond information push

Other forms of IT, increasingly interactive, can provide access to court. [Editor's note: Document assembly systems for self-represented litigants are a notable example.] Not all of them require full-scale implementation of electronic case management and electronic files. In order to be effective for everyone, the information services discussed will require human help backup. There are also technologies to provide this, but they may still not be sufficient for everyone. The information services discussed here, in order to be effective, will need to be provided by a central agency for the entire legal system. A final finding is the importance of public trust in the courts in order for individuals to achieve access to justice. Judiciaries can actively contribute to improved access to justice in this field by ensuring that correct information about their processes is furnished to the public.

In summary, access to justice can be effectively improved with IT services. Such services can help to ameliorate the access-to-justice crisis by keeping disputes out of court. The information services identified here should serve the purpose of getting justice done. They should not keep people from getting the justice they deserve by preventing them from taking a justified concern to court. If people need to go to court, information services can help them deal with the courts more effectively.

[Editor's Note: A very useful list of resources about applying technology to access to justice appears at the technola blog.]

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Dory Reiling, mag. iur. Ph.D., is a judge in the first instance court in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. She was the first information manager for The Netherlands' Judiciary, and a senior judicial reform expert at The World Bank. She is currently on the editorial board of The Hague Journal on the Rule of Law and on the Board of Governors of The Netherlands' Judiciary’s Web site Rechtspraak.nl. She has a Weblog in Dutch, and an occasional Weblog in English, and can be followed on Twitter at @doryontour.

VoxPopuLII is edited by Judith Pratt. Editor in chief is Robert Richards.