As legal aid schemes cut budgets, so Government turn to trying to find cheaper ways of providing some support to those who never did, or will never again, qualify for legal aid. Ameliorating some of the effects of cuts, and even offering new help to those who can help themselves is a common theme of evolving legal aid systems. The Dutch, always thoughtful innovators in legal aid, have turned their attention to how to help more of its citizens ‘help themselves’ when it comes to legal matters (see here).
They recognise this is no easy task. As part of a broader programme of reform (including influencing government to simplify laws and improve the ways in which government agencies liaise with the public), they have been developing an integrated system to try and encourage and support self-help.
This self-help system includes free initial access to an exploratory information and advice session assisted by a legal service counters (a bit like CABx or a free law shops). Those who take this route get lower legal aid contributions should they ultimately qualify. Most interestingly, they have developed a Conflict Resolution Guide which they describe as:
“a ‘conflict tree‘ that provides citizens with customised information in the event of disputes in various fields, for example family disputes, consumer disputes and disputes with public sector bodies.”
The guide is developed by the Board in association with academic researchers and panels of clients and experts established, “to work on improving and expanding the Guide through a process of permanent interaction.”
They have also piloted an electronic mediation service for divorcing clients who wish to use it:
The communication between the partners or ex-partners, as the case may be, takes place online. The advantage is that the parties then have the opportunity to reflect quietly on the proposals that they can make to each other through the website. The data in the file are accessible only for the partners or ex-partners
The pilot is published here.
Finally, the Dutch have been developing aids to self-represented parties conducting their own negotiations, which they call ‘Objective Criteria’. Work on unrepresented litigants tends to suggest such litigants really struggle to know when or how to settle their disputes. They have no way of knowing whether a deal is a good or a bad one. The Dutch describe their Objective Criteria as a way out of this:
Objective criteria are a powerful negotiating tool. They offer parties to a dispute a way to resolve the dispute on the basis of external criteria, thereby allowing them to accept an outcome without the risk of losing face. Objective criteria also provide decision-makers with a powerful tool for comparing potential outcomes. Realistic criteria increase the likelihood that users accept a realistic outcome. The module is currently being developed. This includes development of a method for gathering objective criteria, development of interface components and presentation methods for objective criteria, and empirical research into the effects that objective criteria have on users.
Self-help strategies are not uncontroversial of course. They are resisted when seen as a replacement for legal aid and cannot reach many clients with low capacity to solve their own problems. Yet they can help broaden the constituencies served by legal aid programmes (and perhaps their political appeal as a result) and the Dutch are showing the potential to magnify the power of self-help programmes through harnessing the power of internet-based technology. It is early days in terms of evidence gathering and testing; but it is clearly a model to watch.