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The role of technology in access to justice

Queensland Law Society is currently calling for lawyers to complete the annual Access to Justice Survey.

At this time, while the submissions are rolling in, it gives us an opportunity to reflect on the 2021 Access to Justice scorecard.

One of the survey questions asks which areas are best supporting access to justice. In 2021, the top three results were:

  1. quality and scope of legal assistance
  2. pro bono work by lawyers, and
  3. improvements in technology.

Those who practise in family law, in particular, will have noticed that the use of technology by the court has progressed in leaps and bounds since COVID. Some of the measures were initially introduced so the court could continue to operate in an ever-changing environment with lockdowns and social distancing requirements.

And what we have noticed is that a lot of the changes seem to be sticking around.

The online court portal existed prior to COVID and allowed parties to file documents, access the details of their upcoming court dates and download all documents filed on the matter, including those filed by other parties. One significant advancement is that certain court appearances are now routinely conducted by phone or video, which allows parties in remote locations to attend without travel.

How is this different in other courts?

The local Magistrates Courts may now be more lenient in granting leave to appear by phone, but in my experience, there is still the expectation that parties and practitioners appear in person.

There is no option in the Magistrates Courts for parties to have access to a digital file. This can result in complications when litigants are trying to obtain legal advice and are unable to provide copies of the relevant court documents in their matter. This is made harder when the litigant is solely reliant on advice from community legal centres and duty lawyers, who are unable to officially come ‘on the record’ to obtain copies of all the documents that have been filed.

How does this impact on a person’s access to justice?

One concern when considering developing technologies within the courts is, what happens if someone doesn’t have access to a smart phone or is hearing impaired? Those most in need of access to justice may not have the ability or resources to utilise the technology available, which could put them at a disadvantage.

Another consideration is that the duty lawyer services available (in the Federal Circuit and Family Court, at least) are not made use of as much as they previously were. This could be partly due to people who are appearing remotely not being made aware that those services are offered remotely, and they are no longer being afforded an opportunity to access those services prior to their appearance (previously matters were stood down to enable anyone who wanted to see a duty lawyer to do so and for negotiations to occur).

It could also be that self-represented litigants are less inclined to appreciate the seriousness of court when they are not required to attend in person and therefore fail to seek assistance from a duty lawyer.

What are your thoughts on the role technology plays in providing access to justice? Please complete the 2022 Access to Justice Survey to let us know and assist Queensland Law Society to continue to advocate for access to justice.

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