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Power to narrow the justice gap in the palm of our hand? - Toy-Cronin, Turner

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

As most New Zealanders cannot afford a lawyer but don’t qualify for legal aid, the need for effective online tools to help bridge gaps in access to justice has become particularly acute, a new University of Otago report argues.

The report, funded by the Michael and Suzanne Borrin Foundation and New Zealand Law Foundation, was written by David Turner and Dr Bridgette Toy-Cronin, of Otago’s Faculty of Law.

In it, the pair outline how, internationally, online legal information and self-help (OLISH) has become an important part of strategies to improve access to justice, and how it could be improved in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The need for such online information and areas of self-help is particularly grave here, given the nation’s justice gap - in a 2017 study 63 per cent of people had a legal problem and nearly half experienced hardship as a result.

"In this landscape, it is vital that for those who can use online resources, there is ready access to accurate and comprehensible legal information that explains legal rights, responsibilities, and procedure, and which, most importantly, helps them take action. Without such information there is unmet legal need, which reduces the strength of our democracy and leads to negative social impacts," Dr Toy-Cronin says.

She describes OLISH as a "potentially powerful tool" which can address this need.

"It can improve access to justice by making information and tools more accessible, effective, and empowering. Along with providing efficient and convenient information and self-help, it reduces pressure on in-person services.

"In seeking to narrow the justice gap, many jurisdictions have tried to extend the reach of legal

assistance programmes, improve fragmented and daunting court systems, and with the knowledge that not all of this is possible, equip people to deal with issues themselves.

"The challenge has been to bring these strands together at the place where people increasingly seek help for legal problems-on the small screen of a device," she says.

The report focuses on the provision of free OLISH by government, community organisations, and social enterprises which are designed to help empower people to know and exercise their legal rights.

It recommends boosting the power of OLISH in Aotearoa with a strategy of cooperation and user engagement. People from across the judiciary, legal profession and community organisations would need to come together initially, with a commitment to a strong engagement process to help prioritise and support specific solutions.

Dr Toy-Cronin says Aotearoa has an advantage over other jurisdictions in that it is smaller and less complicated than many others, with government and non-government organisations already committed to delivering accessible and high-quality information to all those who need it.

"Our recommendation is to now take that advantage and maximise it by the sector coming together to create a nationwide strategy, and potentially a nationwide project, that can take OLISH in New Zealand to the next level.

"A first and significant step would be to establish a consensus about OLISH’s broad role, informed by the extent of legal need and barriers to access to justice in Aotearoa, and based around the goal of ensuring certain levels of access to legal help. This would provide the environment for an effective OLISH eco-system to emerge," she says.

Such a shared mission and vision could nurture specific projects, including:

A portal website incorporating guided pathways, action focused tools, and connections to support; including strong connections with the main legal assistance and dispute resolutions systems of the justice system.

A joint funding model, together with objectives and criteria, targeted at collaborative, user-centred projects, which are focused on areas of identified need.

"Through cooperation within the sector, and strong user engagement, OLISH can be an important strand of the rope that we hope will pull people towards genuine access to justice."

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