Access to justice, according to some definitions, includes a public that has some legal literacy – people who are aware of their rights and obligations under the law.
Technology helps promote a form of legal literacy, but some lawyers say it’s a double-edged sword – clients are more willing than ever to participate in the process, says one contributor to the CBA Legal Futures consultation, but they “lack the practical understanding of the limitations of the judicial system to fully appreciate risk.”
Just as some medical patients will research online and then ask their family physician to confirm Dr. Google’s diagnosis, so too can online legal research performed by clients who lack a sophisticated understanding of the legal system translate “into greater expectation for delivery of a solution which responds to their needs, as opposed to a willingness to compromise in a manner which results in a less-than-perfect solutions,” the contributor says.
It’s tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater here, and suggest that clients leave the lawyering to lawyers , but that approach is also a bit patronizing – a pat on the head and an admonishment to leave things to the grown-ups.
Making standardized forms available online – for example, for wills – is one of the suggestions presented for lowering clients’ costs for routine legal matters. And if matters truly are “routine,” it’s probably a benefit, but there are still risks: people can fill out their own income tax forms too, but the more complicated one’s personal situation is, the more likely one is to miss a debit or credit that an accountant would have caught.
So who decides what’s routine and what’s complicated? The number of self-represented litigants who’ve decided to go that route because they think they can do as well as a lawyer – and not necessarily because they can’t afford one – would suggest that the answer isn’t always cut and dried.
On the other hand, providing standardized legal forms can be a lucrative business model, particularly if they’re backed up with a help desk available online or by phone.
One answer to the dilemma posed could be to have lawyers participate in the production of online legal information, and then advertise which sites are genuinely helpful and which are not. It won’t completely eliminate the people who’ll keep looking online until they find the answer they want to hear, but it would give the others – and the lawyers who deal with them – a fighting chance.