Access to Justice Apps – the opportunities and risks

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The BC Provincial Court welcomes the development of apps to increase access to justice for Provincial Court users. It’s no secret that many British Columbians encounter significant barriers to obtaining justice through the courts. Mobile and web-based apps offer exciting opportunities to reduce those barriers, but they also present risks that must be addressed. How can we seize those opportunities and reduce the risks?

Professors Jena McGill, Amy Salyzyn and Suzanne Bouclin of the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law have recently completed a report that offers some suggestions. They compiled and analysed an inventory of current access to justice (A2J) apps in Canada and the US, and found three trends:

  • A2J apps are designed to assist three distinct groups: lawyers, non-lawyer service providers, and the public.
  • Most A2J apps are free, although there may be fees for advanced features and upgrades. Apps targeting lawyers or connecting clients to lawyers are more likely to charge fees.
  • While private developers are responsible for creating most A2J apps, Canadian government and public bodies have recently ramped up their efforts to promote technological solutions to A2J problems.

The professors saw several ways in which carefully designed apps might serve to improve A2J for Canadians:

  • Mitigating financial barriers - Apps that eliminate or reduce the need for legal services by helping people produce legal documents may reduce the costs of preparing court documents and creating basic legal agreements.
  • Reducing psychological and informational barriers - Apps may reduce the stress associated with legal problems by demystifying court processes and the law. They may also introduce new ways for people to learn about the justice system and the law.
  • Reducing or eliminating physical barriers - Particularly useful in a province as large as BC, apps may provide legal information anywhere, 24/7, to anyone with access to the internet.
  • Addressing more needs than traditional legal services - Apps may provide self-help tools beyond those usually offered by lawyers.
  • Contributing to research - Apps may collect big data to help service providers better meet clients’ interconnected needs.
  • Modernizing public legal education - Apps may provide exciting opportunities for students and the public to gain legal information.

Photo credit Dariusz Sankowski

But they recognized some possible risks in using apps to tackle A2J issues:

  • Privacy and security - Unauthorized third parties might acquire and misuse information collected by apps.
  • Reliability - Since apps are not regulated, a user has no way to confirm that information is reliable. Apps offering inaccurate or out-dated information could mislead people with harmful consequences.
  • Regulatory issues - It can be difficult to distinguish between the legal advice that lawyers alone are authorized to provide and the legal information that others may provide. Since there is no regulatory oversight for most apps, some might amount to unauthorized practice of law.
  • Unequal access to justice - In order not to exacerbate the “digital divide”, the socio-economic, geographic and digital literacy barriers to computer use must be addressed.
  • Lessening the sense of urgency about A2J - The development of A2J apps could create a false sense of progress and distract public attention from the need to provide affordable and accessible legal and court services.

How can we take advantage of the benefits A2J apps offer, while managing the risks? The professors recommend development of ‘best practices’ guidance for A2J app developers, focused on Canadian circumstances. They suggest this could incorporate the federal Privacy Commissioner’s work on privacy practices for mobile apps, the World Wide Web Consortium’s guidelines, and aspects of the Canadian Medical Association’s guidelines on mobile health apps.

They also recommend more research in several areas in order to evaluate the effectiveness of A2J apps and inform development of policy on regulation, including:

  • App users’ demographics and usage patterns
  • Apps’ effectiveness at improving A2J outcomes
  • Available regulatory options, their benefits and risks

The BC Provincial Court supports the use of technology to overcome barriers to access to justice, but recognizes the related risks. The professors’ recommendations provide a good starting point for the work that needs to be done to maximize the benefits of legal apps while minimizing those risks.

The report is titled ‘Emerging Technological Solutions to Access to Justice Problems: Opportunities and Risks of Mobile and Web-based Apps’ and the inventories of Canadian and US apps are included as appendices.

An upcoming eNews will look at existing A2J and court-related apps, and future possibilities. If you have developed or are using such an app, tell us about it by tweeting @BCProvCourt.