In an “on demand” session offered to AALL 2021 Virtual Meeting attendees, FCIL-SIS’s own Alison Shea moderated a program titled “Facing Challenges: Access to Justice in a Global ‘Virtual World.’” The three program speakers, hailing from different parts of world and addressing access to justice issues in different professional capacities, were asked to discuss current efforts to provide legal aid and access to legal information to the marginalized groups their organizations serve, and further steps they would recommend to remove barriers to access to justice. Speakers were also asked to offer recommendations regarding how legal information professionals, specifically, might assist in these efforts.
The first speaker, Chiara Fioravanti, a researcher at the Institute of Legal Informatics and Judicial Systems of the National Research Council of Italy, presented “Communicating the Law to Vulnerable Audiences: The redesign of the PAeSI web portal on Italian immigration procedures.” Fioravanti noted several common difficulties that recently arrived migrants in Italy (and no doubt elsewhere) face in accessing legal information pertinent to their immigration applications, including language barriers, overuse of legal jargon, and the diffuse nature of legal information, often scattered across agency sites. To address these concerns, Fioravanti and her colleagues revamped PAeSI, a site initially designed primarily for use by government employees and immigration professionals, rendering the site more accessible to the general public, and particularly to recently settled migrants. She discussed the user-centric, iterative “legal design” approach her team implemented, seeking assistance from focus groups consisting of end users. They found it particularly important to simplify legal concepts (with attorney verification), and Fioravanti emphasized that such clarity benefits all users, not just the intended audience. Librarians, she said, are well-suited to roles in such a design process.
Next, Joan Lijun Liu, a curator at the Institute of Humanities and Social Science Data, Fudan University Library, China (People’s Republic) presented “Legal Information Access for Legal Aid Providers and Vulnerable Community: Practice in China” (see also Liu’s paper presented at IFLA in 2019). Liu first discussed the history of China’s legal aid system, established by law in 1996 to address the exponential rise in legal disputes coinciding with the country’s economic development. The system, administered by the Ministry of Justice, utilizes both licensed attorneys and non-attorney staff and volunteers, some of whom spend their days answering basic questions raised by visitors to legal aid centers—questions that could be forestalled if clients enjoyed improved access to legal information. Liu noted that web resources for legal information in China are often incomplete and difficult to navigate, lacking finding aids and robust search functionality. She emphasized a need in China for further education and promotion of legal information literacy, including training and employment of law librarians.
Finally, Sonia Poulin, Chief Executive Officer of the Justice Education Society, Vancouver, British Columbia, presented “Public Legal Education and Information (PLEI) in Canada and Globally.” Poulin described the Justice Education Society’s mission as working to increase “legal capability” in British Columbia, and Canada more generally (plus select international programs). Examples of the organizations’ initiatives include a program providing legal workshops in schools and to indigenous youth, development of sample social science curricula, a court information program for immigrants, a legal coaching service providing specialized guidance, and an effort targeted at indigenous victims of human trafficking.
Barriers to access to justice identified by Poulin in Canada include financial requirements to access legal aid services in the country, cultural and linguistic differences within the nation (exacerbated by variable translation quality), access issues with respect to digital resources, and (as noted by prior speakers) difficulties deciphering legal jargon. In addressing these difficulties, she considers certain key objectives of PLEI, including that efforts should be:
- relevant to the community,
- targeted to a specific audience,
- accessible to and appropriate for the targeted community,
- reflect consultation and participation with the targeted community, considering already available initiatives,
- trialed and tested,
- conducted by those with appropriate skills,
- and informed by community development practice and other relevant disciplines.
Poulin recommends that legal information professionals join the boards of nonprofits providing PLEI, and deliver workshops to share their expertise outside of their region and/or country.