Access to Justice — the Data Moment

DateMarch 25, 2016

Data — big, open — is having a well-deserved moment among access to justice advocates. While access to justice problems don’t fall into neat quadrants as they might in the technology and business worlds, there is much that can be learned from the use of data to address real needs in other sectors. With new tools to address access to justice challenges comes a key turning point in the application of data to solve complex social problems.

A recent post by Margaret Hagan of Open Law Lab explores the access to justice opportunities available from public data. The potential for preventative strategies and informed engagement is significant. Imagine if, for instance, patterns in bill payments or tax returns triggered “outreach to people in certain geographies and communities that have un-addressed legal problems”. Hagan advocates for a form of targeted action that is only achievable when all relevant data is of high quality, centralized, organized and available for analysis.

In a recent piece for the Canadian Bar Association’s National magazine, Selena Lucien posits that data has the power to neutralize what she suggests could be the false promise of technology. Data, if it were to be systematically collected from “the Ministry of Attorney General’s Office, legal aid organizations and other (non) law-related groups,” could measure the true impact of technologically based responses to access to justice issues. Data-driven solutions would not rely on the ‘gut feeling’ approach that often underpins well-intentioned but ultimately novel responses.

In order to be of significance, we need good data and we must approach it with a clear understanding of what we already know, what we want to know and what methods can measure progress. These authors are looking to the public sector to share data that could illuminate opportunities and inform progress within the access to justice realm. No small feat but certainly recent culture-change efforts from the University of Victoria’s Access to Justice Centre for Excellence (UVicACE) and Ontario’s Open Data Directive are encouraging.

The key theme in the current access to justice data moment is responsiveness. In order to develop informed solutions, those of us working towards access to justice solutions need something to respond to, something that shows us what’s going on upstream. Big data would be ideal, but there is plenty to be done with small data while we wait for a large-scale, multi-source access to justice database to...

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