Does #A2J Need a Strategic Plan?

I’m in the midst of preparing a presentation for Manitoba’s upcoming Pitblado Lectures describing various online and new media approaches to access to justice. In doing so, I have been struck by the range and variety of players in this game. Though they may be providing access to justice services and supports for different reasons (whether for profit, for the public good or as a public service more generally) the resulting innovations show great promise to enhance access to justice and reduce gaps.

Groups like HiiL based in The Hague, are supporting innovative approaches to access to justice worldwide. Technology firm Modria is developing tools to assist both corporate giants like eBay and PayPal and small local governments with dispute resolution. For-profit firms like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer are delivering lower cost legal service options to consumers and in doing so, are effecting increased access to justice.

Margaret Hagan, through Stanford’s and her Open Law Lab blog is contributing to projects across North America using a design-based approach to access to justice problem solving. Hagan this week posted a(nother) terrific graphic on Open Law Lab with this comment:

Right now, there are many stakeholders & experts working in this area, but there is not a clear agenda or priority hitlist. That is what I want to see, and contribute to: a more defined Access Innovation movement.

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 7.58.51 PM

She makes a keen observation and one that has been confirmed by the resources I’ve recently been reviewing and pulling together. Innovation in access to justice is happening everywhere it seems, but like Hagan, I’m seeing little evidence of either coordination or collaboration toward what seems to be a common goal, at least at some level.

Perhaps the scattershot approach reflects that the access to justice innovation “movement” if indeed there is one is still in early days. But maybe it reflects what Hagan suggests — that there is no clear agenda or strategic plan for innovation in access to justice. If she’s right, then I won’t be at all surprised if the outcomes of those innovations are likewise sprayed all across the map, assuming they are tracked and measured at all.

A complex and multi-faceted issue like access to justice requires a clearly defined, coordinated and measured response. So long as financial resources for access to justice remain in short supply most everywhere, there is a great need for efficiency and collaboration in developing innovative, cost effective responses. Any other approach will only result in half-measures and ongoing gaps.

All of which leads to the further question of how that can happen most effectively. I’ll be interested to hear the answer Hagan comes up with, but in the interim, I’d love to hear what you think.


  1. Overviews and co-ordination are useful and important, but a free market in innovative ideas may not be mature enough for full co-ordination, particularly at an international level. People and systems should be able to experiment at a level big enough to produce valid results but small enough that the consequences of failure are manageable. Experiments that succeed can be scaled up when they’re known to be safe.

    I find the infographic provided completely unreadable for several reasons, so one hopes there are other ways of representing the field.

    Online dispute resolution (ODR) proposals do tend to be laid before interested parties in the annual ODR conference and through, among other information-sharing processes. The Cyberjustice Laboratory in Montreal is a good resource, among others.

    So: agreed that it is helpful for people interested in the topic to know what other people interested in the topic are up to, but in these days of hashtags and universal search engines, is that a really big problem? Is it one that existing NGOs or academics or governments cannot solve with existing resources?

    And may I put in a word for the bee I have in my own bonnet, which is that access to justice should not be restricted to access to dispute resolution? Good sound modern law, ideally made available in plain language administrative materials (forms etc), can establish fair civil relationships and resolve a lot of problems well before they turn into disputes. They can also save money on legal opinions. So don’t forget access to justice through law reform.

  2. I tend to side with John on this. A “free market” of ideas is not the analogy I prefer, but a thousand test kitchens is perhaps a better concept for me. This is not because a huge number of divergent efforts aimed to solving the same or similar problems is the best possible solution. It just may be a better solution than conferring a monopoly on justice innovation to a clutch of people with plenty of institutional clout and entrenched bureaucratic power, but no real chops for taking risks or any real penchant for innovation.
    Still the ladder for “safe” and effective innovations needs to be there for ideas that do take off. In the private sector that ladder is capital, debt or convertible financing. There are VCs and public markets and innovation grants or tax instruments. The life cycle of an innovation is quicker. It dies or thrives in quick order. In the public sector, there is inertia. We still have major home run successes like canlii, but our courts and justice administration are not always going to have the same entrepreneurial attitude towards justice. This is to say that the strategic planning is very slow and cautious— but maybe too slow to foster innovation as this term has become known in private sector.

  3. Heaven save us from the bureaucracy of a strategic plan. Nothing would be more likely to kill the innovation reflected in the post. But what you are really arguing for is a strategic map – even one of those mediaeval ones with continents half drawn. You are right: that would be very helpful and there should be more than one because so much is going on and in so many areas formerly separate. Actually, two of the most striking things about the current situation seem to me (by comparison with recent history) the convergence of interest by people and institutions traditionally separate within jurisdictions (e.g. inhabiting the worlds of PLE, legal aid, self represented litigants) and the degree of international linking helped by HiiL’s entrepreneurialism (you can go to few countries in the world and not find that they have been there the week before) but also exampled by links the licensing of material from the Justice Education Society of British Columbia by California courts. Given how parochial we all are, the current state of collaboration is,surely, rather remarkable.

  4. Robert Lapper, CEO, Law Society of Upper Canada

    That far too many Canadians are unable to access justice is now widely acknowledged — but how we come together to address this challenge remains open to debate, as Ms. Dyck’s post makes clear.

    In Ontario, TAG – The Action Group on Access to Justice was recently established, following recommendations like those from the Canadian Bar Association and the National Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters (NAC).

    The excellent NAC report sets out clear principles and goals and calls for greater collaboration to head towards a more accessible system. It also makes clear that each jurisdiction needs to take action according to its own unique challenges and priorities.

    While there are many dedicated individuals and organizations working towards solutions to access to justice challenges in Ontario, there is also a recognized and critical need to increase efficiency, coordination and innovation.

    TAG was launched last June with an initial list of almost 200 individual and organizational participants to address this need and to develop a common agenda, a framework for collaboration and shared mechanisms to measure success. TAG ( – #TAGA2J) is moving forward with support from the Law Foundation of Ontario and with the Law Society of Upper Canada acting as a catalyst organization to facilitate progress.

    Will there be a strategic plan? Not in the traditional sense. TAG is deliberately “organic” to allow for flexibility and to ensure room for all kinds of organizations and a public voice. Each member of the TAG community will help shape and pursue TAG’s agenda according to their own means, priorities and areas of expertise.

    Does TAG represent a “clearly defined, coordinated and measured response” to increase efficiency, collaboration and innovation? Yes. With participation from across the justice system and related sectors, TAG is working to achieve a collective impact to create and sustain greater access to justice.

  5. Innovation by those outside of system control (government, judiciary) is unlikely to make a serious impact on the “problem” of A2J – which, at it’s core, is expense and uncertainty of litigation in the family law context in particular.

    Other resolution mechanisms can contribute – however – as with Collaborative Law and Mediation – they all exist within the shadow of how the “system” works.

    I would suggest that real change will not likely occur by external innovation – and that real systemic change is required – and in that regard, there is not, IMHO, strong coordination towards a common goal.

    One might suggest rather than charging off into some discussion of initiatives based upon anecdotal experience, in response to the Cromwell report and the CBA Futures report – we engage in a strong and focussed evaluation on why trials cost what they do, and what opportunties exist to reduce those costs – i.e.) a co-ordinated, multi-government review to answer the question: How can we create a system that allows for an independent determination of disputes bewteen citizens that allows for broad participation of most Canadians at lower and middle levels of income.

    Just my $.02.

  6. Prof. Karim Benyekhlef

    Greetings everyone,

    The post by Karen is interesting and engaging on many levels. It sheds a light on the challenge that the legal field faces with taming technology and adopting it as a solid and functional component for the sake of improving access to justice.

    I am pleased to read John Gregory’s mention of the Cyberjustice Laboratory. I agree with the general approach that John illustrates in his comment as well.

    On our end, before I even launch the Cyberjustice Laboratory initiative, I had a chance to research and also collaborate with different experts nationally and internationally on several topics related to the tech-legal field. With various empirical and theoretical initiatives starting in 1996 with the Cyberjustice Tribunal and ongoing to this day, we continuously centered our methodology on understanding the needs of the participants of the System of Justice in order to innovate, test, propose and build approaches that are consequential to the deployment environment.

    With respect to this premise, a team of collaborators and I, after a decade of analysis and exploration, sensed the need of creating an open collaborative environment that promotes a multidisciplinary approach focused on understanding the different challenges and questions arising from the combination of technology and access to justice. Our initiative resulted in the creation of the Cyberjustice Laboratory.

    The Laboratory is a hub for thought and creativity, where justice processes are modeled and re-imagined. The Cyberjustice Laboratory consists of 36 researchers and 70 research students, 9 international and national partners and 20 universities spread around the globe.

    I am not claiming that our approach is the apotheosis of solution creation or collaboration on the topic. However, I need to chime in on Karen’s statement about “seeing little evidence of either coordination or collaboration toward what seems to be a common goal”. I reaffirm that one of the reasons behind the creation of the Laboratory is to offer an impartial academic research multidisciplinary environment for thinking sharing and collaborating whether nationally or internationally. The Cyberjustice Laboratory is a rallying organization that shares and relays the findings and the advancement occurring across the planet (and from within the Laboratory as well). An illustration of our effort in this sense can be particularly noted by the periodical conferences and symposiums that we host about cyberjustice (comprising access to justice). The most recent event was held in Montréal and spread on three days (October 1st to 3rd 2014) and gathered experts as far from Australia and Brazil.

    There is obviously no wrong or right approach when it gets to establishing a strategy for creating an international collaboration around a broad topic like access to justice and technology. Nonetheless, it is always formative and edifying to pick each other’s brain and rejuvenate our creativity and approach. In my opinion, introspection and constructive feedback are two principles that can distinguish great results from excellent and successful ones.

    Should you be interested in having more details about the Cyberjustice Laboratory mission, please visit our website:

  7. We do have to realize that Access to Justice is a blanket term for what are really a series of vertical markets that are silo-ed by legal subject area, jurisdiction, and political will (to name a few).

    As a technologist, I am less interested in strategies and more interested in platforms – common sets of tools like the LAMP stack or the Drupal/WordPress CMS ecologies (with modules and plugins) that are designed for the needs of all A2J systems like…

    – interoperability – why can’t our legal information move easily between systems? Are we really going to build, re-build and then re-re-re-build the same tools for each court, jurisdiction, country and area of law?

    – accessibility of law – I don’t want the sun and the moon here, just open access to permanent archives of all laws, regulations, ruling, cases, etc. i.e. Open Law

    – transparency – if algorithms are going to make or participate in legal decision making, they should be open and audit-able so we can see that no one has put their thumb on the scale (either deliberately or through expediency).

    In the US, LSC is attempting to address the big strategy ideas. See their “Report of The Summit on the Use of Technology to Expand Access to Justice” at …

    We at CALI ( are also thinking “platform” on our A2J Author project ( as well and we are working to get our 200+ law schools members involved by having them teach A2J Author to their law students and work with legal aid orgs. This is serious and scalable community organization and big strategy thinking for us.