According to The Law Council of Australia, 13 per cent of Australians live under the poverty line yet legal aid is available only to the bottom 8 per cent. The Queensland Law Society reports that 170,000 people are turned away from community legal centres each year. The “missing middle” is growing and unresolved legal issues continue to have the biggest impact on disadvantaged Australians.
Despite great efforts by legal aid agencies, community legal centres, pro bono lawyers and self-representation services across the country, insufficient resourcing of the legal assistance sector means individuals do not receive the legal help they need when they need it, which can compound associated health and social problems.
Access to justice is fundamental to a properly functioning rule of law, so what can be done?
At the recent #JDHorizons Conference in Sydney I spoke about taking new approaches to bridge the justice gap, such as design thinking to co-create solutions along with technologists, designers, social workers, lawyers and especially end-users of the justice system.
According to Stanford school, design thinking is an iterative process that follows these steps, to generate and implement innovative, effective and commonsense solutions to complex challenges:
• Empathise with and seek input from those who use your services or products
• Define your users’ needs and problems, and your insights about the issue
• Ideate through challenging assumptions and imagining innovative solutions
• Prototype to start creating solutions – build to think and learn
• Test solutions with users, seek feedback and adjust
Design thinking is a client-focussed human-centric approach and when applied to law, is often referred to as legal design since Margaret Hagan, Director of Stanford’s Legal Design Lab, coined the term to emphasise the need for “usable, useful and engaging” legal information, products, services, organisations and systems.
Representing information in the most user-friendly and tailored way for a specific client group will improve their understanding and the likelihood of taking action on the key message. For example, clients with low levels of literacy or from non-English speaking backgrounds benefit from visual or pictographic images to illustrate legal concepts, as is seen in the comic contracts created by Robert de Rooy in South Africa and in Professor Camilla Andersen’s research at The University of Western Australia.
There are other examples of this approach in action. In May this year Hagan published research about the user-experience of the court system in California and proposed “that a human-centered design approach can lay the groundwork to reform the court system so that it is more accessible to people without lawyers”.
In the Netherlands, The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL) aims for people to prevent or resolve pressing justice problems, and co-creation is one of its primary values – “Our projects are based on collective learning, looking at problems from many perspectives and based on an exchange of solutions from different cultures”.
The goal of Florida Bar Foundation’s “Escambia Project” is to make it easy for people to find free or low-cost lawyers to help with issues of housing, family, employment and others. With an interdisciplinary team including community members, the project is being run as a series of experiments and includes plans to replicate the findings for widespread impact.
Here in Australia, law students learn about design thinking approaches in hackathons and clinical legal education programs such as the one I supervise, which investigate innovative approaches and develop technological solutions which improve access to justice. An increase in the “digital divide” is avoided as the client group’s actual digital abilities and access to digital services provides the starting point for a proposed solution.
Any approach which enables legal information and assistance to reach those who most need it, leads to greater efficiencies for resource-strapped justice organisations and solutions capable of broad application, and has a positive impact on individual lives is worthy of consideration.
If Einstein was right when he said “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”, design thinking is one way to bridge the justice gap and result in a legal system which meets the needs of the people it was designed to serve.
Andrea Perry-Petersen is a lawyer, consultant, researcher and speaker.