Editorial: Making legal services by web, phone more useful

Rhonda Nordlander certainly isn’t alone in having a bad experience as a self-represented litigant.

After trying to navigate her family law matter herself, she now finds herself suffering what she describes as “post-traumatic court disorder.” Without legal training, she has made mistakes throughout her case and now finds herself in debt despite not having a lawyer. Law professor Julie Macfarlane, who has been researching the experiences of people like Nordlander, notes many others have similar stories.

Interestingly, Macfarlane’s report on the issue suggests the proliferation of online resources touted as a key solution to the increasing unaffordability of legal representation isn’t that helpful after all. Online forms, according to the report, can be difficult to complete if litigants can find them in the first place. Policies aimed at increasing access to justice put a big emphasis on the use of the Internet, but “what these people need is a friendly face, a helping hand,” Macfarlane notes.

It’s a big dilemma as governments and legal organizations struggle with limited resources. Shifting to online and phone-based services may save money, but they don’t necessarily provide the level of service some people require.

In its recent series of reports, the Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters considered those issues as well. While Nordlander’s story illustrates the gaps, one of the reports nevertheless indicated the usefulness of information and educational services that build people’s legal capabilities in contrast to formal supports through legal representation in court. As the report pointed out, information and educational services can respond to a greater volume of legal problems and can better support early resolution. It also presented data from Australia showing how the system there allocates the least funding to information and educational services that cost less and help more people while dedicating more money to legal representation for fewer clients. The implication is clear that governments should be shifting that balance.

It’s cold comfort to people like Nordlander, but the committee report does provide some answers to the dilemma: a national justice Internet portal to simplify and co-ordinate access to information. Such a service would streamline the proliferation of resources out there and, hopefully, ensure they’re more useful and easier to use. In addition, the committee report emphasizes the need to have supplemental services available live by phone and online that could hopefully help people like Nordlander needing extra advice. It’s an imperfect solution but it’s a workable start.

For more, see "Litigant decries 'post-traumatic court disorder."
Glenn Kauth

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