Portable Chief Operating Officer Sarah Kaur says that better integrating technology in the justice system could reduce backlog and improve access to legal services for the most vulnerable


The need for integration of technology into our justice system has been felt keenly over the past few months. Courts and tribunals around Australia have hit the pause button for all but the most urgent matters while trying to provide core services during the coronavirus pandemic. In Victoria, billions of dollars are potentially held up from being released into the construction industry as the Planning and Environment list at the Victorian Civil Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) suspended in-person hearings from March. In response, the Victorian government has provided $5m for VCAT to transition from paper-based and manual systems to an end-to-end digital way of resolving these matters, including online dispute resolution and virtual hearings.

Such rapid change doesn’t happen in the justice sector, or at least, it didn’t use to. Like VCAT, more government justice organisations will benefit from re-thinking how technology can provide easier access for the communities they serve, before the next crisis.
Digital resources, tools and services can provide communities access to legal information, education, and help with lower barriers during the coronavirus pandemic, and well after it passes. Digital tools present opportunities for interactive, guided, and personalised pathways for people with legal issues who can help themselves through different parts of the process of resolving a legal matter.
As consumers of core services that have been provided online for years, large segments of communities have adapted to “self-serve” style digital interactions with companies and government agencies to gain access to utilities, education, health, tax, and other services. The time for re-thinking how justice may be accessed through “self-service” is now, because this model scales in a way the justice system cannot currently, in order to meet growing demand.

The need for digital technology

Not all in our community are equipped to navigate their legal affairs without in-person support. We need to prioritise in-person support for those who need it, including those who may be in complex and vulnerable situations. However, for those who can, and want to help themselves through the process, we must design clear and user-centric digital legal services that can be accessed without manual intervention and are available outside of business hours.
While almost all government services have an online presence and provide some resources online, too often they are not presented in a way someone with limited prior knowledge of the law can use, interact with, or understand easily. This leaves people reliant on in-person assistance to work through their issues.

How can it be done?

Introducing innovation in the justice system is hard, but the economic and accessibility gains are harder to ignore. Starting with high-volume and low complexity matters in the civil space can represent a low-risk path to introduce new processes, and online tools to the benefit of many. Disputes about residential tenancy, small consumer goods, fencing, and traffic offences represent areas where pilots to increase access to justice through digital transformation can and should be supported by government funding and human-centred design practices.
Introducing technology that allows people to resolve their issues with more ease, would lower the backlog in courts, reduce pressure on legal aid, and potentially lessen the expense of engaging private lawyers for the missing middle. This helps to triage the demand of government services, so that organisations are more able to provide one-to-one or high-touch support to people in complex or vulnerable situations who need it.

This is a chapter in Digitising human services, a CEDA report in which six technology and services experts discuss how to build on the rapid digitisation brought on by COVID-19 to deliver better human services. Click here to read the other sections and an overview by CEDA Chief Economist Jarrod Ball.

Other recent CEDA research