Ian Mulgrew (April 13, 2016). Vancouver Sun. Retrieved from: http://vancouversun.com/opinion/columnists/ian-mulgrew-legal-self-help-finally-arriving-in-b-c
The B.C. Legal Services Society has established a do-it-yourself website that will help ordinary, middle-class people — not just the poor — solve legal problems.
Need a will? Missed a mortgage payment? How about a separation agreement, divorce or family orders?
The new site, MyLawBC, provides free tools and solutions for everyday legal problems ranging from family violence to the powers of attorney — a remedy for sky-high legal fees and mazelike court procedures.
“More Canadians believe aliens have visited the Earth than believe the justice system is fair,” noted Mark Benton, CEO of the society.
The site, he said, is an attempt to empower B.C. residents to accomplish legal tasks on their own by providing reliable online help via up-to-date information, links, downloadable worksheets, documents and plans.
“My partner was looking at this and while I was doing the dishes she announced she had finished the separation agreement,” Benton joked.
It’s a profoundly different and uniquely accessible way of helping people.
“It isn’t aimed specifically at middle-class people — that’s a spillover effect,” explained Sherry MacLennan, director of the society’s public legal education and information services. “Many issues are shared by people regardless of the socio-economic status.”
Citing figures that a five-day trial costs roughly $60,000 and average legal fees are $365 an hour, she said: “Who can afford that? Not many.”
A “soft launch” of the site occurred Feb. 29 and it has been running while bugs are fixed and small improvements made in the software. Already 1,900 people have tried it. The “official” launch will be in May.
“I think we were on the cutting edge, it’s an evolution that’s happening and it’s an important cultural change that’s happening,” MacLennan said. “It’s an evolution from systems designed to support the inside stakeholders to becoming more focused on what the user needs.”
Providing legal information and education are part of the mandate of the society, established in 1979, and the site is part of its innovative approach, which includes the use of graphic novels to address family violence.
But these days, most people turn to the Internet — the society’s website alone had more than 1.4 million hits last year.
Yet research shows people are overwhelmed by online legal information and, after reading it, are often uncertain how it applies to their troubles.
“MyLawBC was developed to address these needs,” Benton said.
It was financed with about $775,000 in non-government funding from sources such as the Law Foundation and Notary Foundation. It will cost about $60,000 annually in maintenance.
MacLennan said: “Clients are doing their own research online and we’ve learned that we have to adapt our products to help them. So it’s more useful and effective for them, so they can take steps to solve their problems. For those with a little more money, and (who) can afford to pay for a lawyer, this website is going to encourage them and point out where they will get the most value for their money.”
Anyone with Grade 6 literacy skills should be able to use it.
“We’re hoping lawyers will see this as a reliable tool to give to their clients and start working together — more triage, more unbundling of services,” MacClennan said.
B.C. has been moving more and more into the delivery of legal services online — a new Civil Resolution Tribunal for small claims and strata disputes soon will begin operating.
These kind of Internet remedies to legal issues were pioneered in Europe; but the family law dialogue tool, for instance, will be the first of its kind in Canada.
Big online retailers led the way with these kind of conflict-resolution systems that utilize linked, question-and-answers dialogue boxes to create “guided pathways” leading to solutions.
The Law Society worked with a Dutch group, Hiil Innovating Justice, and a California tech company, Modria, which designed dispute-resolution systems for eBay and PayPay.
Couples, for instance, will be able to negotiate a separation agreement using something like a chat box at their own pace and in privacy without meeting face-to-face. If, after answering a series of questions, they can agree on the terms, the site produces a document they can use.
The legal community isn’t known to be receptive to change and not all lawyers are thrilled with these developments.
“Some are early adopters, that are excited about it and enthusiastic, and then you get the other ones and their first reaction is fear,” MacLennan said. “They’re afraid. It’s getting (them) past the fear and learning to see how it can help them. … We were aware it could become controversial among some.”
However, she quipped: “I don’t know of any divorce lawyers who have been put out of business by our free do-your-own divorce guides.”
MyLawBC initially contains information in four areas of law — family, family violence, wills and personal planning, and foreclosure.