Technology for Legal Empowerment
This page describes how legal empowerment actors worldwide are using technology to give people information about the law, connect them with legal advice and provide them with legal services.
It is a shorter version of a full-length report, available for download here (2.5MB). The report also contains detailed examples, guidance and a full list of initiatives reviewed for the project.
People and organisations are working in legal empowerment worldwide, in ways ranging from expanding provision of free legal services to making public legal education and information more accessible. These approaches focus on explaining to people how the law affects them on a day-to-day basis, improving their ability to access formal justice systems and/or empowering people to change the law.
Based on a scan of 136 initiatives worldwide, the report, Technology for Legal Empowerment, analyses how technology is being used for legal empowerment work in jurisdictions with widely varying justice systems, legal aid provision, connectivity and access to technology. It focuses on what technology does — and does not — add to existing ways of building the trusted relationships that are essential to legal empowerment. Drawing on the experiences of the people who design, build and manage these initiatives, the report aims to understand what makes public-facing technology-enabled projects more likely to be used and useful.
What is legal empowerment?
Legal empowerment is concerned with strengthening the capacity of all people to exercise their rights. It’s about grassroots justice — ensuring that law is not confined to books or courtrooms, but is available and meaningful to ordinary people.
Why are legal empowerment actors interested in using technology?
To its proponents, technology offers a more efficient means of providing legal services to a wider range of people. Specifically, they argue, technology offers the potential to expand legal advice providers’ geographic reach; allow people to help themselves more effectively; and reduce costs related to hiring lawyers and specialist providers.
However, there is also evidence that using technology to bring laypeople closer to the law is a complex task and that simply publishing legal information online does not directly equate to users’ improved knowledge of rights. As legal design scholar Margaret Hagan notes:See: Hagan, M. (2016). The User Experience of the Internet as a Legal Help Service: Defining standards for the next generation of user-friendly online legal services. Virginia Journal of Law & Technology, Vol. 20, Number 2, p. 411: http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/BTB24-2F-3.pdf. “simply putting legal information and resources online will not by itself increase laypeople’s access to it. The information must be presented in usable and user-friendly ways so that it will be of value to people beyond experts like lawyers and law librarians.”
Legal information presented in a way that ordinary people can understand, through readily accessible channels, has the potential to level the playing field between legal professionals and others and thus reduce inequities in access to justice.
This report demonstrates that, around the world, initiatives are already using technology to:
- Help people diagnose legal problems themselves
- Help people assess their entitlement to benefits or legal assistance
- Provide people with legal information that is easier to understand and access
- Give individuals legal information that is customised to their specific needs
- Support people through processes such as representing themselves or resolving disputes
- Generate legal documents
- Connect people to organisations that can provide assistance
This section describes the eight of the most common ways in which initiatives are using technology to provide legal information and services, drawn from a global scan of existing initiatives using publicly available information.
Uses of technology
|Name||What are they?||Examples|
|Static sites A web page that is delivered to the user exactly as stored.||Online information sources, targeted at non-lawyers, which display legal information in a ‘static’ form that is not tailored to the needs of a specific user.||LawStrive (Nigeria), Singapore Legal Advice (Singapore), Baobaw.law (South Africa)|
|Guided pathways to legal information||These ask users a series of questions that help them refine, define or select the legal issue they are facing, and then provide them with information that is tailored to their needs.||Illinois Legal Aid Online (US), Confident Commuter (Australia), Represent (US)|
|Guided pathways to specialised legal advisers||These services ask users to define their problem before presenting them with information on organisations or individuals such as pro bono lawyers, non-profit organisations or lawyers who can provide further support. In some cases, this is combined with legal information in the way described in ‘Guided pathways to legal information’.||Pakistani Lawyer (Pakistan), Justice Connect (Australia), CitizenshipWorks (US)|
|'Live chat' features||Live chat features involve a human adviser function in the same way as a telephone helpline, allowing users to chat directly to a person who can give them guidance or connect them with relevant support. A small number of initiatives allow individuals to ask questions directly to an adviser with legal training, who responds in real time, via online, real-time chat.||Citizens Advice (UK), LawHelpNY (US)|
|Document assembly||Document assembly tools are designed to automate the creation of legal documents, such as wills or consumer complaints. Document assembly-focused initiatives primarily aim to increase the efficiency of legal processes that require a document to be created. In many jurisdictions, such documents are only otherwise available when prepared by a legal professional.||Dear Landlord (Australia), c-App (UK)|
|Online dispute resolution (ODR)||They provide an online interface that facilitates the resolution of disputes, typically in consumer disputes or civil law matters such as divorce. They can support negotiation and mediation, or a combination of the two.||Civil Resolution Tribunal (Canada), e-Court (Netherlands), PreSolv (India)|
|Structured data collection for use in legal cases||These initiatives help users collect data about a legal problem in a structured way, which they can use as evidence in the justice system. This collection process typically requires users to follow a defined process when entering data into the tool.||Callisto Campus (US), HeatSeek (US), PLP 2.0 (Brazil)|
|Chatbots||Chatbots provide virtual information in the style of a direct-messaging chat interface, with an automated flow of questions and answers determined by conditional logic.||LawPadi (Nigeria), DoNotPay (UK/US), LawGuide Singapore (Singapore)|
Types of technology
Most initiatives under review for this research used websites as the primary means of providing information. Mobile apps were the next most common, though they remained relatively rare, while a comparatively limited number of initiatives provided information using SMSCommonly referred to as ‘text messaging’, a service for sending short messages of up to 160 characters to mobile devices, including mobile (cellular) phones and smartphones, digital phones and web-based apps within a web browser., chatbotsA piece of code that performs specific automated functions in the style of a direct-messaging chat interface, often within an existing instant messaging app. For example, it may provide information when a user requests it (often in natural language that makes it resemble a human operator − hence ‘chatbot’), request information from another user, or provide a means of linking to other web services. and live chat services.
Who implements the projects?
There is a lot of diversity in the backgrounds of legal empowerment project founders. Of the projects interviewed for this project, a little under half were set up by an independent individual or a small and independent group of founders. The rest of projects surveyed started out as either being housed within an existing non-profit organisation, or as a project with committed support from one or more external stakeholders.
It is common for teams to house diverse sets of skills, for example, having a lawyer working with a product designer and an editor. Intentionally building multidisciplinary teams, either by hiring staff members or independent contractors with experience in user experience (UX) designThe process of researching a user’s behaviours and needs when designing a product, with the goal to improve the usability and accessibility of the product. and content design, proved to be beneficial to the course of the projects surveyed. As one India-based initiative put it it: “We knew we needed a mixed team, because this was a first attempt at [building technology] for this type of organisation. Usually, legal and research organisations are mostly lawyers and policy folks. We knew we needed a good designer.”
Idea generation and definition
Ideas for a public-facing legal empowerment technology tool can be generated in a wide variety of ways. Researchers asked the founders of initiatives about the source of their idea to create an initiative. In the cases of the surveyed initiatives, this took the following forms:
- A founder’s personal experience of justice issues.
- A founder’s professional experience of justice issues, typically gained while working in the private legal sector.
- An existing legal empowerment-focused organisation’s perception there is potential to make its activities more effective.
- A founder’s knowledge of activities taking place in other sectors
- A founder gaining ideas as a result of participation in a fellowship programme or being ‘incubated’ in an existing organisation.
Our research suggests that the most effective projects are created when they are grounded in in-depth knowledge of problems in justice provision and the people who face them, for example, when a founder has personal or professional experiences of the justice issue they are trying to solve.
Initiatives took a range of approaches to monitoring activities throughout the project lifecycle and assessing the impact. Some initiatives collected quantitative analytics data, for example through Google Analytics or Matomo, on the number of visitors to their sites, while others tracked anecdotal feedback by speaking to users.
People interviewed for this project noted that many initiatives they had encountered conducted only limited evaluations of their work and potential impact. They suggested that introducing more rigorous assessments of progress would be an important step forward for the field in order to help better understand how useful the projects were, and encourage more field-wide learning.
Defining the user
By creating ‘personas’An exercise that identifies and describes key stakeholder groups in broad terms. They can help highlight assumptions about user needs and identify risks when planning a project. for their users, initiatives were able to shape testing and responses to input from users throughout the development period. Creating personas usually involved a review of existing research and institutional knowledge about people’s needs in a particular legal area, combined with focus groups or workshops with affected members of the community.
Researching the user’s technology use
Initiatives’ contacts with their users, gained through existing legal empowerment work or other connections, often allowed them to build a strong understanding of their legal needs. However, even initiatives with in-depth knowledge of their users’ legal needs said they did not fully understood their users’ ability to access technology until they had conducted in-depth user research. As an interviewee at the Brazilian legal empowerment organisation Themis put it, based on their experience testing the app: “What works for some people in one place, won’t work for others in another place.”
User research can encompass reviews of existing research on technology, connectivity and accessibility in the relevant context, on the needs and behaviour of target users, and on users’ communications’ preferences and habits.
The majority of interviewees said that their target audiences found the text of laws difficult to understand and that it was crucial to rewrite content in more accessible language. Detailed legal language is important to resolving legal issues effectively, but as a public entry point for non-lawyers trying to understand the law, it can obscure more than it illuminates.
The importance of using plain language for online content is now widely understood in the legal empowerment field. However, initiatives frequently said that writing legal information in an easily comprehensible way was not straightforward. Interviewees highlighted several key practices that helped them make their writing more accessible:
- Starting with the conclusion–giving the user the most important information first.
- Writing in short sentences and paragraphs, allowing them to skim content.
- Using simple words and phrases whenever possible.
Defining a clear structure for content plays a critical part in helping readers to understand legal information. Design principles for displaying information online aim to guide users through a set of clearly linked steps, making it clear where they are in the process at all times. Many initiatives spent considerable time thinking about how their user personas would use the information they had created.
Once they had defined users, written content and created a concept of what they wanted to create, most initiatives did in-person testing with a simple version of their final product, or the final product itself. These sessions usually needed to be conducted in person, and initiatives described various methods to contact users, ranging from partnering with organisations that regularly interacted with people from that community, to finding people who were directly engaging with the justice system at that point.
Initiatives often found users to participate in testing by going to places where they already were, such as Illinois Legal Aid Online, whose staff described going to courthouses while people were standing in line and giving them a piece of paper with a wireframeAn image or set of images that outlines the functional elements of a website or webpage, typically used for planning a site’s structure and functionality. sketch.
Building the tool
Initiatives took a wide range of approaches to building technology tools. Some initiatives began by using freely available online tools to disseminate information, ranging from the newsletter platform Mailchimp to the blogging platform Wordpress, and then built their own tool later in the process. Others began by hiring a technology or design specialist agency to help them complete the work.
In most cases in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, initiatives recruited one to three technical specialists to develop a tool, often on a part-time basis. Several initiatives emphasised the importance of continuing to involve users while building the tool.
Many initiatives said that it was crucial to build in space in the project design for flexibility and iteration, and building structures and processes to allow people to submit feedback regularly was cited as an effective strategy. For example, Nyaaya runs in-person meetups with users in three different cities to discuss what users wish to see on the website.
Project budgets that include funds to make alterations as the project progresses are likely to be better equipped to manage this need for iteration.
Responsible data challenges
Information on legal problems may not only be privileged but also highly sensitive, particularly when the problem is experienced by a member of a marginalised group or a person in a vulnerable situation. Technology-based initiatives that collect data to provide a legal service face a duty to manage the data in a responsible way.Check out the Responsible Data community for more guidance on the topic: https://responsibledata.io This is a challenge, not just because of the need to comply with regulatory privacy frameworks, but because users describe privacy as an important issue for them.
It is impossible to eliminate all risks associated with data collection. Approaches to ensuring data security therefore involve tradeoffs between benefits to users of certain types of data collection and the extent to which risks are minimised. The Responsible Data community has identified guiding principles and several good data security practices that are emerging within digital technology initiatives in a range of sectors. These include:
- Carrying out regular data audits, mapping what data are held, where and why.
- Collecting and storing only the minimum data necessary to avoid leakage or subpoena of data by third parties.
- Limiting data retention – only holding data collected for as long as needed, including user IP addresses and other identifying data.
- Storing data securely and informing users about what data are stored locally on users’ devices and in places they cannot directly access.
- Setting appropriate permissions and access mechanisms – only people who need to see sensitive data should have access to them and these permissions should be reviewed regularly.
- Carrying out regular risk assessments, privacy impact assessments or threat modelling to assess potential risks and harms – this should also involve mechanisms that alert the platform host to unintended consequences.
- Designing a well-considered consent process that transparently identifies risks to individuals, clearly states the purpose for which data will be used, and ensures that not giving consent for a particular use of digital data does not prevent access to support.
Technology is not a replacement for in-person legal advice and support. As many of the initiatives in this report show, technology can help determine when in-person support is most needed, and how best to guide a person to it. Interviewees consulted for this report repeatedly cautioned that technology should not be introduced primarily to cut the costs of providing legal information and advice, and that doing so could be counter-productive.
Personalised legal advice provided by another person will remain a crucial part of legal empowerment efforts. If used well, technology could help target this in-person support to situations where it is most needed, by helping organisations communicate reliable, easily understandable advice through communication channels that people already use.
This research report, commissioned by the Open Society Justice Initiative, was conducted by The Engine Room from August to December 2018. The content of this report does not reflect the official opinion of the Open Society Justice Initiative. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the report lies entirely with the The Engine Room.
Read the full-length report here (2.5MB).
This report is based on a survey of literature related to legal empowerment and access to justice, as well as information related specifically to the use of technology in these fields; online research into existing legal empowerment initiatives; and semi-structured interviews with key informants in the field and individuals and organisations who design, build and manage legal empowerment initiatives. In total, researchers spoke with 54 people, based in 17 countries.
This report was last updated in January 2019.
Commissioning editor: Matthew Burnett (Open Society Justice Initiative). Lead researcher: Tom Walker (The Engine Room). Authors: Tom Walker and Paola Verhaert (The Engine Room). Additional research and content: Ed Rekosh (Rights CoLab) and Swati Mehta. Web version prepared by Paola Verhaert.
The Engine Room is an international organisation that helps activists, organisations, and other social change agents make the most of data and technology to increase their impact.