Expanding Role of Technology and Access to Legal Information

Two recent reports on legal needs consider the role technology and access to legal information play in helping people work through legal problems.

A recent report from Ontario looks at the everyday legal problems of low and middle-income earners in that province. “Listening to Ontarians: Report of the Ontario Civil Legal Needs Project” (PDF, 1.9MB) finds that one in three low and middle-income Ontarians reported having a non-criminal legal problem in the past three years. The range of problems included disputes between divorcing couples, wrongful dismissal, eviction from housing, personal injury, and consumer debt.

When faced with a legal problem, the top three places people seek assistance and information from are:

  • a lawyer in private practice
  • friends or relatives
  • the Internet

The report finds that Internet penetration is relatively high among low and middle-income Ontarians, with 84 per cent having access to the Internet at home, work, school or somewhere else. Among those who sought self-help through the Internet, almost 9 in 10 found this assistance to be at least somewhat helpful. The report concludes:

“Technology holds great promise in expanding the reach of affordable legal information, advice and representation. The resources provided through [websites from several legal organizations in Ontario] and other online sources of advice, information, and referrals suggests the potential of the Internet for empowering individuals to engage in self-help. Provided that the websites are accessible, online resources can enable individuals to self-select the right level of legal assistance for their problem.”

Meanwhile, as part of its renewed approach to advancing access to justice, the Canadian Bar Association has released a 125-page research report, “Moving Forward on Legal Aid: Research on Needs and Innovative Approaches” (PDF, 1.6MB).

The report summarizes recent research, both in Canada and internationally, into the legal problems experienced by the poor and nearly poor. It concludes that a majority of low-income people experience legal problems that make their day-to-day lives more difficult, and yet continue to have no meaningful access to legal advice and assistance in many civil legal matters. Access to legal information has improved:

“The greatest strides have been in the area of access to legal information and there have been many important developments in this field both in terms of harnessing technology, be it via telephones or websites, and in terms of creating resources for SRLs.”

But much work remains to be done. The report calls for reform to the legal aid system, support for “access to justice communities”, and expanded pro bono services.