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Better access to justice in Canada? There’s an app for that

The Globe and Mail by Jena McGill 13 July 2016

If a police officer stops you on the street and tells you to produce identification, do you know your rights? If not, do you know where to go to find out what they are?

A smartphone app called Legalswipe is providing a novel way to quickly and inexpensively answer these questions. Developed by recent University of Ottawa law-school graduate Christien Levien, the app provides real-time information about legal rights during interactions with police. It will even provide specific language for responding to police queries in a variety of circumstances. Legalswipe proved so popular that its servers crashed under the demand when it launched last July.

Innovative apps designed to simplify the delivery of legal information and services and decrease the costs associated with conventional legal interactions have great potential to improve the state of access to justice in Canada, which the Canadian Bar Association has called “abysmal.”

We lag behind other countries in ensuring that all citizens can effectively access our justice system, and Canadians who belong to equality-seeking or remote communities face particularly significant barriers to enforcing their legal rights. Historically, solutions have focused on refining existing court processes and increasing access to legal representation. However, it is critical that we acknowledge technology as a key means of creating new pathways.

In May, the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General and the Legal Innovation Zone at Ryerson University did just that, with the announcement of the Ontario Access to Justice Challenge. Unique to Canada, the challenge seeks to “foster the growth and success of startups that are developing products, technologies, processes and solutions that have a direct positive impact on access to justice in Ontario.” The 10finalists, announced this week, include JusticeTrans, a mobile app providing legal information on transgender rights; Law Scout Inc., an online service connecting small businesses with pre-vetted lawyers; and Small Claims Wizard, which provides step-by-step guidance through Ontario’s small-claims process. These startups demonstrate the potential for technology to address diverse access-to-justice issues.

Just look south of the border to appreciate the possibilities. Since a 2013 national summit, various “hack-cess to justice” events across the United States have brought together tech experts, lawyers, law students, legal-aid representatives and other stakeholders to develop access-to-justice tools. Apps such as Shake, which allows users to create, sign and send legal agreements on their phones, and PaperHealth, which allows users to create health-care proxies and living wills, are truly putting the law at people’s fingertips.

To be sure, some may argue that focusing on technological solutions to the access-to-justice crisis risks letting policy-makers and the legal community off the hook. Apps are not a panacea for the myriad complex issues we face, and should not take the place of needed political and structural change.

Additionally, as apps take flight, we need a careful understanding of the ways tech is changing the legal landscape. Mobile apps give rise to unique privacy and security concerns, and there are a host of regulatory questions to consider given that Canadian law permits only lawyers (and paralegals, in some provinces) to deliver legal services.

There won’t be a single solution to the access-to-justice crisis in Canada. The best way to proceed is to attack the problem from all angles, including such novel tools. At a minimum, they can contribute to improving everyday access to legal information while we continue to work toward bigger, more systemic change.

Jena McGill is a professor at the University of Ottawa law faculty. She leads a research project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council on the role of mobile and web-based apps in improving access to justice.