22 September 2020

In conversation with Kate Fazio, Head of Innovation and Engagement at Justice Connect

We recently spoke with Kate Fazio, Head of Innovation and Engagement at Justice Connect. Kate is a change-maker in the legal assistance sector. As a lawyer, technologist and journalist with a Master’s in Social Impact, Kate brings a uniquely inter-sectional lens to her work to improve access to justice in Australia. Read below for Kate's take on Technology & Innovation in enabling access to justice.

Q: Can you tell our audience a little bit about what you do and what a typical day looks like for you?

A: Sure. So, my role at Justice Connect is Head of Innovation and engagement. It’s a role that I’ve had there for about 2 years, but I have been at Justice Connect for over 8 years now, which feels like a very long time. And in that 8-year time period I’ve held various roles, but they’ve all had a focus on providing legal assistance at scale, using novel and technologically driven approaches. In my current role, I’m very interested in these questions of how Justice Connect can provide legal assistance at scale and I also oversee Justice Connect’s communications team and our fundraising team as well.

An average day at Justice Connect can be almost anything, given the breadth of the portfolio I’m looking after, but it will generally include a number of interesting conversations and product development meetings around the key products my team is developing and managing at Justice Connect. So, we have an interdisciplinary development team that builds and maintains a whole range of technology products that support access to justice. And then I’m also having lots of meetings and conversations around how Justice Connect can do more and work really hard to be doing strategic engagement and consumer outreach so that our services are having the biggest impact that they can possible. In the times we find ourselves in now, the questions around consumer outreach are particularly interesting because many services aren’t running face-to-face so we’re really interested in exploring: how can we reach out to the very many Australians that have unmet legal needs currently? How do we connect up to them in digital spaces? How do we let them know that they have legal rights, legal remedies? And that there might be free legal services that they might be able to access in these digital settings.

Q: I want to move on to a quote I saw recently, which said that the legal profession is in the middle of what’s being referred to as the ‘next industrial revolution’. Do you agree with that statement?

A: Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with that statement, Dan. I think almost every industry and system in the world is transforming in one way or another at the moment, much as systems and social systems did around the industrial revolution. I think we’re seeing that transformation in health, in transport, in government, in retail, and it’s happening at different speeds in those different sectors. I think the legal sector has been generally slower to get started in that transforming. However I would say that well and truly the legal sector, the legal industry, legal institutions, have realised that change is coming whether they like it or not and that they will need to adapt…because the world is changing and the law is a pillar of our social structures, and when the world is changing, the law needs to change with it. I think that in general, that’s a good thing, that this change is coming.

I think we have a fiction that we have access to justice, that everyone is equal before the law, but that is nothing but a fiction. Each year 8 million Australians have a legal problem and half of them won’t access any assistance in relation to their problem. We also know we’ve got really good data that legal problems lead to and compound disadvantage. I know that many lawyers think that it’s unacceptable that we have a legal system that works for the few who can afford to engage with it, rather than a system that works for all. So, I think that this revolution is driven by many things, but I hope that it will address this issue as one of the many things it addresses.

Q: In what ways can technology, from your perspective, facilitate access to, say, legal information and legal awareness of citizens?

A: It’s a really interesting question. I think wrapped up in their high experience of legal problems in Australia is generally a low understanding in the community of the fact that many problems in life have a legal dimension and that a problem that might, on its face, not necessarily appear to be legal, might actually have a legal remedy. Things like problems around debt and housing may actually have a legal component to them but if people don’t really understand the way that the law works and hangs together, then they’re not going to understand that they may actually have a right or a remedy that can help them resolve their life problem. And so that underpins the need for the average person to have better awareness of how the law applies to their personal circumstances and their experience of the world. Traditionally, in the legal assistance sector, we’ve run legal education programs, we’ve put brochures in libraries, we’ve tried to visit schools and increase awareness of the law, but generally a lot of these programs haven’t been particularly effective. And when we see people with these really big legal problems that have reached crisis point before they engage with a lawyer…it shows us that people don’t really understand the law very well. So, there’s a really interesting opportunity here to better explain the law to the average person. And not just explain the law, but explain how to access the law, how to access those rights and remedies that you might have. And technology has a role to play here but, in my view. it’s not necessarily really fancy or sophisticated technology – it’s actually more about how we are harnessing the normal technology that people are engaging in their day-to-day life – to meet people where they’re at, to use language and approaches to communication that they’re used to, to engage with them in a way that’s going to cut through. So, something we’re really interested in at Justice Connect is looking at how we’re using web content, how we’re using social media, how we’re using closed group advocate-based marketing strategies to reach into communities and to provide legal content in a way that those communities can then share with each other and do that work for us, because that’s a much more effective route to getting people to disseminate this information and really engage with it.

Q: Building on that point about leaning into communities to provide them with information, are there some successful examples you’ve seen in recent times, particularly as they relate to the access to justice sector?

A: Yeah, there’s a few different examples that come to mind and some of them are about this information piece and some of them are about actually giving people tools so that they can take that next step and actually access the servers or take some steps with respect to their rights. There’s been a program in the United States called the Technology Initiatives Grant, which has been running for quite some time now. There have been some really interesting examples that have come out around disaster response…there’s a fantastic application called ‘Upsolve’, which explains the bankruptcy process and actually starts letting people put together a bankruptcy application. And then the last step in this application is, it will help that person send their pre-completed application through to a free legal service, who will then help them settle and submit that application and potentially give them a bit of advice around it. What I love about that example is that it’s a really integrated solution, from information through to self-assistance and action, through to linking someone to the right service that’s gonna have the right skills to give them a piece of discrete assistance so that they can really take action. I think that example shows technology at its best and shows how you can integrate it and really think about the experience of the person that’s interacting with the technology and put that experience at the heart of the design of the solution.

We’ve also been really looking at the questions in recent months because COVID-19, as we know, is creating some interesting factors that drive us towards digital solutions as a legal service provider right now. And those factors are: we have rapidly increasing unmet legal needs because we have increasing unemployment, we have increasing credit and debt problems, we have concerns around aged-care and elder abuse…so we’ve got all these drivers of unmet legal need and at the same time, we have restrictions on movement, we have some legal services that aren’t able to operate at the scale that they usually would, people can’t run drop-in clinics…so we are needing to pivot legal service provision into a digital, online, remote service provision context. And so, we are really interested in exploring questions around ‘how do we step into that void? How do we both scale up our services and move them as we can into this remote service provision context, so that we can try to meet this really significantly emerging legal need?’ And the way that we’ve done this is, we’ve looked to a few different factors. We’ve done a really thoughtful online campaign where we’ve been using all different types of social media, closed-group messaging…so we can try and explain to people what some of these legal problems are, and then we’re giving them actionable resources.

Much like this Upsold example in the United States, we have a tool called ‘Dear Landlord’ that lets people draft their own letters to their landlord explaining why they are unable to pay their rent, asking for rent reduction, asking for a payment plan. And those letters are based on the actually legal rights that those people have at this point in time in the COVID-19 crisis. So, it's a really interesting space and there's a lot of opportunity, especially right now.

Q: One of the things that come up through some of the reading I've been doing is around trust in technology and it may be particularly the case for some marginalised groups that they lack trust in governments and technologies. So, how can governments and other stakeholders build and foster trust in technology as a tool to access to justice services?

A: Yes, the trust point is absolutely key and it's an interesting question Dan. We've done quite a bit of research around this. Some people…their experiences of an institution or an organisation and the trust that they ascribe to that institution doesn't change whether they're having a phone-based or in-person based interaction versus an online-based interaction, but for some people it does. And interestingly, for some people trust grows up in an online setting and for some people trust goes down. We recently did a big survey of people who’ve applied for legal assistance online at Justice Connect and 66% of those people said their strong preference is to make applications online rather than in person or by phone. So, all of this is to say there's actually not one answer. People are people – they all have different preferences. What we need to be able to do as a legal services organisation, as government, is recognised that diversity of experience – that diversity of preference – and deliver services in a way that have a menu of options for engagement. Some people would prefer to engage online so we must have online access points for those people. And increasingly, there's a really big cohort of people who would rather engage online. But there is absolutely a cohort of people who want to eyeball someone or who want to hear someone's voice before they provide confidential information and so we need to maintain those access points for those people for whom that is a really important thing. So, we really need to be taking that human-centred design approach that has a menu of options.

With respect to government, I do think they are awesome concerns that people had around: what's government going to do with my data? Are government systems secure? Are government systems susceptible to hacking? And I do think government has some work to do to persuade people that their systems are secure, that they do have a track record around managing data well, and I think that that's on government to really to really do that work but they should be able to get there.

Q: Do you think that technology can facilitate the delivery of justice services in all legal domains or are some areas more prone to be addressed via traditional methods, such as maybe criminal cases?

A: I'm absolutely not an expert on court-based reform. My interests lie in service delivery and in access questions. Court-based reform is an area of huge opportunity, but I do think there are some questions around the experience of witnesses, the experience of cross examination, that there are some finer points there that I'm definitely not equipped to really comment on. But I would say that I think there's a tendency in the law to look for barriers to digital transformation and kind of throw the baby out with the bathwater…there may well be areas where digital is not suitable but there may well be, within that same space, areas where digital can add real efficiency. So, it may be that in a criminal trial that you can do 60% of that trial on the papers, remotely, and then there are key moments in that trial that need to be done in person with everyone present. Currently, all of it is done together in-person and there are obviously big parts of the administration of justice carried out in court houses in-person that involve people waiting around, that are highly inefficient for all involved…and there's real opportunities for efficiency gains.

Q: How do you think technology can facilitate better triage of cases to identify the most suitable legal and justice services that might be available?

A: Inquiry, intake, triage is an area of huge burden for legal assistance organisations. At Justice Connect we spend a huge amount of our time managing those parts of the process. We have created an online intake system – it handles about 30% of applications that are made to Justice Connect and what we've been able to do so far is automate certain points of the intake and triage process where things are really clear and where the distinction around whether someone is eligible or not is quite black and white. We can automate that. But there are obviously some elements of an intake and triage process that requires some human judgement and it's very difficult to completely automate those parts of the process. It’s much like triage in a hospital – there out there are some things where you could have a checklist and it would be quite easy to have some ‘yes, no’ distinctions but there are other components where you really need to look at someone and make an assessment based on having that person in front of you because you need to really eyeball them and think about their symptoms. It’s much the same with legal matters.

It's a little bit like the example we were just talking about with court-based reform; just because you can't necessarily automate the whole process doesn't mean that there aren't opportunities for real gains in parts of the process. So, for those people that apply online at Justice Connect, they can take their time, they can apply anytime day or night, they can upload all their documents…it takes them about 10 minutes. We have heard through our surveys of people that applied for us online that they really appreciate the ability to do that – that it's convenient for them. As I said, 66% of them would prefer to apply in that way and for our staff that takes them less time to review those applications as well. On the other hand, if you apply for assistance with Justice Connect and do a phone-based intake, the first phone call takes about 40 minutes on average, to go through all the information gathering. So, there are real opportunities. Even if you can't do something the whole way through, there are opportunities to improve that experience.

Q: Can we go back and dive in to more of the pros and cons of online justice services? Could you talk us through a little bit more about that?

A: In terms of providing an end-to-end service in an online setting, what you need to do is handle that application intake process and then there's the actual service delivery process. There's lots of opportunity to provide a full end-to-end service online or remotely and I'm sure many people are doing this in one way or another right now because of COVID, even if that's just using email and zoom – you're already delivering online legal assistance. So, there's no one way to do it and the answer on how to implement it is dependent on exactly what the service is, who your target audience is, the type of assistance that you're providing…but the key points to think about are: how do you get those requests through? How do you handle those requests? How do you batch them up? How do you do workflow allocation – how do you allocate them to different lawyers in your team? What supervision   processes might you have in place? What reminder processes might have in place? And if you have a platform or a system facilitating it, who has access to it? Are you enabling the client to also access it, so that they can share documents with you, so that you can share advice? There's lots of considerations there but much of this is reasonably straightforward. The key ingredients are just to have a secure system and to make sure you're thinking about what the client needs, and to have a bit of flexibility.

Q: I'm also interested in regulatory barriers to innovation and to the use of technology in promoting access to justice. Are you able to talk us through some of the barriers that you are aware of in Australia or in other jurisdictions?

A: Personally, I think the regulatory barriers to innovation are probably overstated. And a really good example here is actually a piece of work that King & Wood Mallesons helped us with earlier this year. One of the big projects that my team has worked on at Justice Connect is our pro bono portal. This is a platform-based system that helps us to allocate those matters that we can't assist with – where we think pro bono has a role to play – with pro bono lawyers in our network. Justice Connect has a really large pro bono network and until we put this platform in place, the way we handled this allocation process was – we literally had spreadsheets and we would bring up one firm at a time, and we would play phone tag, and we would try to find a firm that had the right expertise and could take the matter on. And unsurprisingly, that process is not particularly efficient. So, we ended up building this platform and all the firms that we work with are on the platform and all our staff are also on the platform. They post up matters and we use algorithms to match up the matters with the firms as well as having a range of other ways that we can do that matchmaking. So, it can send things directly and we also have ways that firms can browse unplaced matters. There's obviously quite a lot of sensitive information that's being handled in that platform – there's a lot of different cases in there at any one point in time, there's a lot of different firms using that platform, and so there is some real complexity in there and we certainly had some external parties say to us “what about the regs? What about the rules?” and so we received some advice from King & Wood Mallesons about the application of regulation to the platform before we launched. It was really thorough, excellent advice and really interestingly, the advice said, ‘you know what, we think your platform handles the rules better than you can handle them without a platform’. There’s often an assumption that technology puts you in a worse position than not using technology, whereas in actual fact, technology – because it has permission structures and secure databases – can actually put you in a better position with respect to legal regulation, than an analogue approach and when you think about, it makes sense, because if you have files out on desks, if you're selling things in the mail, there are so many opportunities for breaches of confidentiality, for information to get where it's not supposed to go, as compared with a robust digital system. So, it's a really interesting question and I do think that the constraints are perhaps overstated.

Q: What's actually required to successfully use technology in providing access to justice? Is it about the regulation piece that you've spoken about, is the training of it, is it legal experts, or is it a combination of all these things?

A: It’s something that we think about a lot at Justice Connect. If we go full circle back to your first question around ‘are we facing a new industrial revolution in the legal sector?’, which I think we are, I think that Justice Connect and law firms like King & Wood Mallesons are probably more progressed along that transformation journey than some other organisations and therefore we are often asked to reflect on the ingredients that helped us get there earlier. I think there's a real combination of ingredients that you need in place at once…it’s more about mindsets. So: curiosity, interest in opportunity, interest in interdisciplinary thinking. So, to make use of technology, you have to be comfortable to have conversations with tech people, with developers, with systems-thinkers and also with consumers. You have to be able to put yourself into the client experience side of things as well as the lawyer side. I think there's a mindset piece and then I think there is a capabilities piece. But you really just need the capability to collaborate with those that have that capability, which again comes back to mindsets. I think lawyers are used to being the expert on everything and so they are sometimes challenging collaborators, although I do think lawyers are getting better at this. In my experience, I think they are very much used to telling people what to do rather than bringing that curiosity and that interdisciplinary spirit into a collaboration. That’s what really helps you thrive in the intersection of law and technology and this transformation that’s happening.

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