Online, plain language, self-help resources are commonly touted as important tools in our efforts to increase access to justice. British Columbia has created a web portal (Clicklaw), designed to be the primary electronic access point linking British Columbians to available legal information and help; the Alberta Legal Information Society is currently developing a similar portal for Albertans.
Although online resources have become increasingly important in recent years, a new study out of University College London raises concerns about their efficacy in facilitating access to justice for those most in need of the access. Key concerns include the impact of literacy deficits, lack of internet-based expertise, and even access to technology.
The study involved giving legal problems to two groups of well-educated youth (high school and university students) and asking them to locate solutions to their problems online. Over half of the high school students looked to foreign webpages for help with a British legal problem; almost a third of law students did the same. Many students failed to find accurate solutions, and even those who did expressed a lack of confidence in the solutions they had found and a desire for expert assistance to confirm their findings.
It is easy to see how those with low literacy, lack of proficiency in an official language, or little technological expertise could be frustrated, rather than facilitated, by online self-help resources. Although electronic resources are a simple and inexpensive way to reach a large population, they should be viewed as only one, limited tool in the necessary access-to-justice toolbox: they are not a panacea.
The Canadian (and American) media picked up on this study, including the Vancouver Sun which published an article reporting the study’s findings this past fall (available here). This media interest is perhaps not surprising given the access to justice crisis currently facing both the Canadian population and the legal profession.
Our thanks to Penny Goldsmith and the PovNet team for bringing the Sun news article to our attention.
 Denvir, Catrina, “What is the Net Worth? Young People, Civil Justice and the Internet,” Faculty of Laws, University College London, submitted for the degree of PhD, May 2014.