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We are proud to share our research on the role of digital tools in frontline legal aid. There seems to be unjustified 'techno-optimism' when it comes to the role of technology in broadening access to justice for vulnerable citizens. The question is how primary legal aid can be strengthened (whether or not by means of technology) in helping citizens with complex problems, in order to avoid unnecessary referrals (within the first line and to the second line). Read on for the main conclusions or view the full research report.

The role of frontline legal assistance

The main conclusions from the study on the role of frontline legal aid are:

  • The shopping bag full of papers seems to be less common in legal aid than was initially thought. Proportionally, this shopping bag is still most common in debt assistance, even though the number seems to be decreasing here as well. This decrease may be due to the arrival of administration offices and the shift from paper to digital documents.
  • Citizens do not appear to be as self-reliant as the government believes: a significant proportion of those seeking justice have difficulty with language and digital skills. It is therefore important to tackle the problem at the front end by writing letters and documents in layman's terms and making procedures less complicated. In addition, the importance of (personally) involved assistance is evident.
  • Multiproblems occur on a regular basis, but this does not seem to be related one-on-one to a lot of letters in a bag: it appears that a person seeking justice usually comes to legal aid with a specific legal question and that attention is usually only given to other problems when the person seeking justice starts to talk about them. In this area, therefore, there seems to be a world to be won; to have the legal and social domains integrate more with each other, as the system revision aims to do.
  • Legal Aid Shops play an important role in first-line legal aid. They help an estimated 25,000-30,000 citizens per year. Legal aid shops appear to be close to the citizens: most legal aid shops hold their consulting hours in the neighbourhood or at another easily accessible location, usually more than once a week. Moreover, there are no income requirements for legal aid shops and advice is almost always free of charge. Law centres not only provide advice to citizens, but also represent their interests. For example, they help write letters or draft notices of objection on behalf of the person seeking justice, something that a Legal Aid Office does not do, for example.

The potential of technology in frontline legal assistance

The main conclusions about the potential of technology in frontline legal aid are:

  • The shopping bag full of papers seems to be less common in legal aid than was initially thought. Proportionally, this shopping bag is still most common in debt assistance, even though the number seems to be decreasing here as well. This decrease may be due to the arrival of administration offices and the shift from paper to digital documents.
  • Citizens do not appear to be as self-reliant as the government believes: a significant proportion of those seeking justice have difficulty with language and digital skills. It is therefore important to tackle the problem at the front end by writing letters and documents in layman's terms and making procedures less complicated. In addition, the importance of (personally) involved assistance is evident.
  • Multiproblems occur on a regular basis, but this does not seem to be related one-on-one to a lot of letters in a bag: it appears that a person seeking justice usually comes to legal aid with a specific legal question and that attention is usually only given to other problems when the person seeking justice starts to talk about them. In this area, therefore, there seems to be a world to be won; to have the legal and social domains integrate more with each other, as the system revision aims to do.
  • Legal Aid Shops play an important role in first-line legal aid. They help an estimated 25,000-30,000 citizens per year. Legal aid shops appear to be close to the citizens: most legal aid shops hold their consulting hours in the neighbourhood or at another easily accessible location, usually more than once a week. Moreover, there are no income requirements for legal aid shops and advice is almost always free of charge. Law centres not only provide advice to citizens, but also represent their interests. For example, they help write letters or draft notices of objection on behalf of the person seeking justice, something that a Legal Aid Office does not do, for example.