I had the pleasure of attending “Reshaping Justice” in Sydney this week, a conference held to celebrate the NSW Law and Justice Foundation’s 50th birthday. As much as it pains me to say it, the Australians are well ahead of New Zealand in their efforts to engage with issues in access to justice issues and the changing nature of legal services. The NSW Law and Justice Foundation have turned out an impressive body of work on these issues so it was a great opportunity to hear about their research and what is happening across the ditch.
A consistent theme of the day was the movement towards becoming user-focused or citizen-centred. This sounds really good (much like access to justice does) and it popped up often during the conference. Like all hip concepts, however, it runs the risk of being very slippery, applied in multiple contexts with a changing meaning so I want to take the opportunity to explore it in two contexts: design for legal tech and court reform.
Design for Legal Technology
Victoria Legal Aid gave an excellent cautionary tale on the failure to take a user-focus. They designed a downloadable app back in 2012, when such things were all the rage, called “Below the Belt”. Its purpose was to give young people information about such topics as age of consent (including a consent age calculator) and sexting. The app failed abysmally and, well done to them, they have taken it as a learning experience and analysed the failure. One reason the project did not succeed was that they were not user-focused. They made assumptions about their market and did not consult deeply enough with potential users. This included a failure to understand that a downloadable app, and one made only for Android, was unlikely to succeed. Wellington Community Law are perhaps aware of this tale as their new chatbot product targeting the same market, Wagbot, uses Messenger rather than a downloadable app.
The recently launched online Civil Resolution Tribunal for British Columbia claims to have done much more effective and ongoing consultation with users. In a recorded presentation on the tribunal, Sharon Salter cautioned against getting lawyers and IT folk in a room speculating about what the public will do. She emphasised that a multidisciplinary team plus testing, testing and testing again is key. Whether the BC model has done this successfully will, of course, remain to be seen. Her cautions echoed those from LawFest that I have previously discussed: lawyers have to learn to think differently and be open to working cooperatively with others disciplines.
That is, lawyers need to be alert to their tendency of thinking they can become instant experts in any field. While that was the message, I did notice a tendency in some presentations to claim user-focus but with little evidence of it in practice. Old habits of consulting with the profession, the judiciary and a few community organisations may die hard.
Another context in which the user-focus emerged was in thinking about court reform. A representative of the NSW Department of Justice gave a spirited presentation on the merits of data collection about users. She implored academics to get involved in civil justice research (preaching to the civil justice academics who were there and who understand the realities of the limited funding streams for this type of research). NSW Department of Justice have been working with NSW Law and Justice Foundation to produce reports on who is using the civil courts, why and to what ends. That is valuable data and an initiative to be applauded.
I was left wondering what she meant by the claim that the NSW Department of Justice was trying to be “person-centric not court-centric”. If you only apply a person-centric lens to the courts (I’m assuming she meant litigant-focussed), this will naturally lead to regarding the courts as a person-person service for dispute resolution. That is obviously part of their role and therefore being person-centric might be seen as an unqualified good. But if that is the only lens you apply then you miss the point about their constitutional role and place as a public good that goes beyond individuals.
I suggest we need to be a bit cautious about bandying around whatever version of the term is in vogue e.g. user-focused, citizen-centric. It is an admirable goal but it needs to be (1) genuine (not just lawyers and “experts” guessing) and (2) not the only lens through which to think about civil justice.