Dignity in digital: technology and increasing access to justice

Miranda Grell
A series of public workshops gave Hackney Community Law Centre important insights into the emotional discomfort and stigma some clients feel when seeking advice, writes Miranda Grell

There are many within the advice and IT sectors who are championing the use of technology as a way of increasing access to justice, but what do the people who will actually use digital services think?

Hackney Community Law Centre (HCLC) wanted to find out.

Last summer, we commissioned a series of public workshops to seek the views of people who had used advice services, along with staff and volunteers in the advice sector community. We were interested to know whether people felt that digital methods of advice could contribute to better accessibility and provision. The workshops were organised for us by social enterprise Social Spider, which also reported on the findings (here) Though the research carried out was primarily local, the resulting report contains some interesting findings that may be useful for colleagues outside of Hackney.

The workshops
The main objective of the digital advice workshops was to capture specific, rather than general, insights regarding advice seeking and advice giving. We wanted to fully understand the additional problems, alongside the legal problems regarding merits and means, that people face when seeking advice. Only then would it be possible to reach conclusions and set out ideas for digital solutions.

A fascinating aspect of the workshops was that they looked at the emotional, as well as practical, considerations of seeking advice. It’s fair to say that before HCLC embarked on this exercise, we had not given as much consideration as we should have to the emotional journeys our clients are forced to go on. During the workshops, when we put ourselves fully in their shoes, we gained a greater understanding of the loss of dignity, lack of privacy and the feeling of ‘stigma’ that advice seekers can feel merely by entering the law centre.

Members of public who participated in the workshops told us:

Accepting the need for advice is also accepting the reality of a situation. This, in itself, can be unpleasant. The practicalities of advice seeking (where the advice provider premises are, who else you anticipate being there) can also compound that sense of personal discomfort. Sometimes needing advice involves a challenge to who you think you are.’

Advice providers are often the last port of call for people with problems; not the first. Primary sources of advice may be friends, family members or other trusted community figures. If the people you know don’t know more than you about what you should do, then you are unlikely to move forward in the resolution of your problem.’

Staff and volunteers from local advice sector agencies told us:

People arrive at advice services at points of intense emotional turbulence; carrying with them expectations, hopes, fears and wished-for outcomes.’

The advice provider joins the journey of the advice seeker’s problem only after the advice seeker has lived with this problem for a period of time: they often meet the advice seeker when the problem is most acutely felt.’

The ideas
Following the workshops, Social Spider helped HCLC to devise five potential digital advice ideas that are practical to implement, while capturing the stressful, often confusing and emotional experience of advice seeking and people’s need for dignity, privacy and lack of stigma.

In summary, the five ideas are to develop:

  1.  A mechanism for receiving advice questions via email or another form of electronic message medium and managing the workflow involved in processing the questions;
  2.  An app or online service that helps clients to note the advice that they are being given and construct to-do lists and agendas;
  3. An ‘in the pocket advice kit’ app for the client that could also be used by their support workers/friends or family;
  4. A ‘digital triage’ to match the problem to service, potentially using some kind of semantic analysis or similar method. This app/website would seek to provide an interface where people could enter their problem and receive a response. It would enable advice seekers who were unable to find the ‘right’ terminology for their problem to go through a simple process to establish what legal category their problem belongs to and which advice service can assist;
  5. A pre appointment prep and possibly communication prior to appointment. This application or service would provide help and guidance about what documentation needs to be brought to an appointment.

The report and next steps
HCLC held a Digital Advice Summit on the 14 of June 2016 to launch the report and discuss the five ideas. We have already began taking forward some of the ideas with the assistance of the fantastic pro bono and IT teams at Freshfields and are excited at the possibility of working with other not-for-profit sector colleagues to see how we can develop the others.



About Miranda Grell

Miranda Grell works at Hackney Community Law Centre and Haringey Law Centre as a development officer. She was the 2014 recipient of the Law Centres Network Reita Clarke Memorial Award

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