Open-source legal aid checker launched

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Victoria Legal Aid (VLA) and Code for Australia (CfA) have developed and launched a new online tool backed by open-source code to widen access to justice, as more legal bodies tap technology to make tasks more efficient and targeted. Developed through the Code for Victoria Innovation Challenge, the online legal aid checker tool both matches people with the right legal services and saves VLA’s lawyers up to 30 hours of phone calls every week.

The tool directs people who have matters that are out of scope for the VLA to more appropriate organisations through the use of an online assessment process. The team behind the tool – comprised of design engineer Rikke Winther-Sørensen, product managers Becca Blazak and Michael Calle, and software engineer Christian Arevalo, who worked in collaboration with VLA – refined coding from the gov.uk Legal Aid Checker, which is run by the UK’s Government Digital Services, to fit Australian needs.

The team was tasked to create a tool that would better match people with the right service offered by VLA, and it was initially thought the product would be a referral and booking tool that would be used internally and in the wider legal services community, the CfA’s Grace O'Hara told Australasian Lawyer.

“However, after collecting data from both the client and internal sides, a few themes emerged for the team. Namely, many people were being referred to places that couldn’t actually help them – and as a result, were having to tell their story over and over again – and the calls coming through to VLA weren't all relevant and were taking up valuable time for the lawyers,” she said. “The team decided to increase efficiency in interactions with clients and enhance the client experience by creating the online checker.”

This isn’t the first software developed by the VLA-CfA partnership. The first was an SMS notification system which aimed to decrease no-shows for VLA appointments. After its release last year, the tool is estimated to have led to an 83% decrease in time spent texting clients, O’Hara said.

VLA was so pleased with results from the first product of their collaboration that it decided to extend the partnership, VLA’s Daisy Smith said.

“[VLA and CfA] are now digging deeper into legal service delivery and ways people are connected to legal services, both within Victoria Legal Aid and across the sector generally,” Smith said. “Victoria Legal Aid is keen to innovate in this area, and hopes to build its capacity in using human-centred design principles and agile methodologies the team are skilled in. The future is very exciting. There is great potential to use rapid prototyping of technology solutions as the basis for modernising how we help the Victorian community.”

O’Hara said that there are no definite projects yet for the VLA-CfA team, but they’re hoping that as word about the tool spreads, it may be picked up by other government departments across Australia, or even internationally.

The good news for those who want to adapt the system to cater to their specific stakeholders is that all code published by the CfA team is open source. The tool’s source code itself is published on Github.

The launch of the online checker tool comes after similar tech-fuelled innovations in legal services have been launched in the country. Last year, the Legal Services Commission of South Australia (LSC) launched a pioneering web-based chat service that was even cited by the American Bar Association in a discussion about the advance of legal services. The LSC also recently launched the country’s first online legal aid application portal.

CfA also had teams that worked with the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and Parks Victoria, and the Department of Treasury and Finance. The first team produced a new mobile app to help collect biodiversity data while the latter created a dashboard to increase transparency around procurement in infrastructure projects.


Related stories:
Online legal aid application launched in SA
Aussie legal innovation cited by American Bar Association

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