Access to Justice — the Data Moment

Data — big, open — is having a well-deserved moment among access to justice advocates. While access to justice problems don’t fall into neat quadrants as they might in the technology and business worlds, there is much that can be learned from the use of data to address real needs in other sectors. With new tools to address access to justice challenges comes a key turning point in the application of data to solve complex social problems.

A recent post by Margaret Hagan of Open Law Lab explores the access to justice opportunities available from public data. The potential for preventative strategies and informed engagement is significant. Imagine if, for instance, patterns in bill payments or tax returns triggered “outreach to people in certain geographies and communities that have un-addressed legal problems”. Hagan advocates for a form of targeted action that is only achievable when all relevant data is of high quality, centralized, organized and available for analysis.

In a recent piece for the Canadian Bar Association’s National magazine, Selena Lucien posits that data has the power to neutralize what she suggests could be the false promise of technology. Data, if it were to be systematically collected from “the Ministry of Attorney General’s Office, legal aid organizations and other (non) law-related groups,” could measure the true impact of technologically based responses to access to justice issues. Data-driven solutions would not rely on the ‘gut feeling’ approach that often underpins well-intentioned but ultimately novel responses.

In order to be of significance, we need good data and we must approach it with a clear understanding of what we already know, what we want to know and what methods can measure progress. These authors are looking to the public sector to share data that could illuminate opportunities and inform progress within the access to justice realm. No small feat but certainly recent culture-change efforts from the University of Victoria’s Access to Justice Centre for Excellence (UVicACE) and Ontario’s Open Data Directive are encouraging.

The key theme in the current access to justice data moment is responsiveness. In order to develop informed solutions, those of us working towards access to justice solutions need something to respond to, something that shows us what’s going on upstream. Big data would be ideal, but there is plenty to be done with small data while we wait for a large-scale, multi-source access to justice database to be realized.

Currently, The Action Group on Access to Justice (TAG) with support from the Southern Ontario Library Service is surveying public librarians in southern Ontario about the access to justice needs of their patrons. We are building on an event last fall that brought library and legal professionals together to address the access to justice needs of rural and remote communities (read a recap of the event and a summary of attendee feedback here).

So far, we’ve learned that patrons are most often self-represented and turn to their librarians to understand what steps they should take to address their legal problem. They often do this when they have received a formal document such as an eviction notice or statement of claim. Patrons typically bring these documents with them to show the library staff. We’ve also learned that housing issues and problems accessing government benefits are some of the main reasons that patrons turn to their librarians for guidance. In the past four weeks, we have received over 160 responses with 90 per cent of those respondents indicating they would like training on how to spot legal issues, find reliable legal information and make effective referrals to legal assistance.

Our survey of librarians has been an opportunity to engage a key group of intermediaries in whom people place a great deal of trust. It’s also been an opportunity to establish a common access to justice narrative. We started with the knowledge that libraries were a gateway for access to justice guidance. We wanted to know how to better equip librarians.

Based on the data, we will work with our partners to enhance training and distribution of public legal education and information materials. We have something to respond to and we can track whether or not we’re doing it well with a follow-up survey or selected interviews with librarians in priority areas.

These efforts are small, but like the number of participants now engaged in our legal/library professional network, the potential for growth and impact is high. TAG is learning from its dialogue with librarians and will be expanding intermediary engagement efforts over the coming months. Our aim is to capture a snapshot of how people frame their legal problems and how they seek help.

Respectful engagement, relationship building and a measured approach are key factors in the collection of meaningful data that has the potential to yield responsive solutions. Data is something but not necessarily the thing.

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Sabreena Delhon
is the manager of The Action Group on Access to Justice (TAG) at the Law Society of Upper Canada. She has co-ordinated a range of initiatives about social inequality across justice, academic and non-profit sectors. Reach her at sdelhon@lsuc.on.ca or @sabreenadelhon on Twitter.

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