The COVID-19 pandemic, throughout 2020 and into 2021, has obviously had widespread impacts on the legal community (and the broader global community).
In Queensland and Australia, we saw rapid adoption of technology solutions as a way to keep business and transactions happening despite the lockdowns that were put in place.
For example, in Queensland the COVID-19 Emergency Response Act 2020, together with associated regulations (in particular the Justice Legislation (COVID-19 Emergency Response—Documents and Oaths) Regulation 2020) introduced new ways of signing documents electronically.
Generally, these were welcomed across the sector and allowed individuals and businesses to continue to operate without needing to be face to face. This is particularly important for our rural and remote communities, where access to a qualified witness may not be as simple as it is for central and regional counterparts.
Throughout the last five years of Access to Justice Scorecards, improvements in technology have always featured heavily as a way to improve access to justice in Queensland, increasing year on year since 2016 to the second place in 2020 (just behind pro bono work by lawyers). Within the technology space, there has been a particular focus on:
- online access to information (including referral services), and
- digitisation of court processes, including uploading/accessing documents online and video/teleconferencing of hearings.
In 2020, over 50% of respondents selected the above as key ways of improving access to justice through technology. But 2020 also saw an increase in comments casting concern on assuming that all members of the community will have access to technology, which the profession realised is not a reality.
For some, easy access to technology is not a given. While many of us are privileged enough to have daily access to computers and internet, this is not the case for many. In this way, the adoption of online or digital solutions can act to create an even greater divide between those with and those without, particularly where there is a strong and immediate push to adopt these digital solutions.
There is little point in ignoring the trend towards digitisation, and the benefits it can have (even to disadvantaged and marginalised people) are significant. However, it needs to be done in a way that recognises the challenges that some people can face, and ensure that concurrent measures are implemented which offset the potential segregation that reliance on technology can create.
Unfortunately, there is no simple or ‘one-stop’ solution for this, as different groups will face different challenges when it comes to accessing technology. For example, infrastructure may be an impediment (that is, lack of a safe computer or reliable internet), there may be social or procedural barriers (that is, for those with difficulty reading, writing or hearing, which may be exacerbated in the digital landscape) or even knowledge gaps (including unfamiliarity with online systems or a lack of awareness that they are available). Each of these, and other barriers, need to be front of mind in developing and implementing technological solutions which have a client facing element.
That’s not to say this isn’t being done. Independent from the COVID-19 pandemic (though no doubt bolstered by the need it has created), projects are underway to better harness the benefits of technology, including further digitisation of court processes. It is important that these supplement, rather than replace, existing processes and pathways.
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Emile McPhee is a member of the Queensland Law Society Access to Justice Committee.