Digital transformation for legal aid: challenges and solutions

Posted July 15, 2021

With just a smartphone and access to the Internet, Ukrainians can now access a wide range of administrative services without even leaving the house. During a pandemic, such solutions are particularly valuable. But can we apply this experience to other areas – for example in the provision of legal aid? 

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Unlike administrative services, legal aid is neither standardized nor clearly regulated. People apply for legal aid in connection with specific issues and various life situations that require the clarification of legal points. To provide high-quality legal aid, case files have to be studied, and follow-up requests have to be made to the respective bodies. And quite often legal aid is linked to other services such as medical, social, or administrative.  

Nevertheless, this does not mean that the digital transformation of legal aid is impossible.  

For some areas, such as standard applications or complaints, or the digitalization of materials or their automatized processing, precise algorithms can significantly simplify access to the service. They open up opportunities for the development of digital services in ways that widen access to legal services.    

At the legislative level, digital solutions for legal aid have been mapped out in the Cabinet of Ministers’ Action Plan. Specifically, some of the goals of the Ministry of Justice are to enhance the effectiveness and accessibility of free legal aid for everyone who is unable to protect their rights by themselves, to enhance the level of legal culture and awareness, and to promote the development of an effective system for accessing legal information, including through digitalizing corresponding services. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has speeded up digitalization in Ukraine and mainstreamed the tools for making remote applications for legal services. Specifically, the annual report of the legal aid system says that in 2020, the contact centre of the system received twice the number of calls per month (from 35,000 to 45,000) compared to 2019 (when there were about 20,000 calls). Besides, in 2020, the platform WikiLegalAid was viewed 5.6 million times, which is three times more compared to 2019. 

Which digital solutions are already integrated for legal services?

In 2020, UNDP conducted a comprehensive study called Provision of Legal Services in Ukraine and Opportunities for their Digitalization to identify which digital solutions already work in the area of legal services, and to assess how they meet the needs of some specific social groups. The study analysed digital solutions for primary legal aid targeting the general public, and also specific social groups such as people with disabilities, people affected by the armed conflict in Ukraine, and populations of remote communities. 

The study showed that most often when searching for legal information or consultations, people from various social and vulnerable groups use:

-          Thematic pages and groups in social media;

-          Hotlines;

-          Online requests to the respective bodies. 

Less commonly used, yet considered to be promising, were various online chat services of various institutions, messenger-based services, and mobile applications. These options are provided by the free legal aid system in Ukraine, as well as by some human rights civil society organizations. 

It’s not convenient for people to read long texts, trying to find clarifications among complicated terminology – they’re looking for specific and practical information, like where to send inquires or which phone number to call,” explains Anna, a participant in the “Legal services for socially vulnerable groups” focus group interview, which UNDP in Ukraine conducted in May 2021.  

Telegram channels for legal aid, or chatbots in messengers, provide the opportunity to immediately respond to the public’s requests. The number of chatbots has increased over the last few years, and their popularity has increased as well. Nevertheless, such services have a limited number of users, as they require some digital literacy skills, in contrast to a phone call to a hotline.

The assessment "Emergency Legal Aid to counter COVID-19" conducted by the Legal Development Network with UNDP support shows that on the one hand, during the lockdown the request for online tools that provide legal aid has increased, but on the other hand, far from everyone can use these tools. The absence of access to the Internet and the required digital skills turned out to be insurmountable barriers for people living in remote areas, and for elderly people. 

This confirms the findings of another sociological study, “Electronic services: experiences, trust, accessibility” conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, with UNDP support and in partnership with the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine. 

In that study, among the respondents who did not use e-services, almost a quarter (24 percent) said they lacked the skills to do so, and one in five non-users (21 percent) reported having no Internet-enabled device to access these services – even if they needed them.

The results of the abovementioned surveys demonstrate that there is a high demand for digital solutions in the legal aid sphere, but these solutions can be only non-essential, given that they could leave behind many Ukrainians. 

Social networks, mobile applications, online platforms, chatbots, and online chats significantly simplify access to legal information and aid. However, they require access to the Internet, as well as a smartphone or computer and the digital skills to use them. 

The ‘Your Rights’ mobile application

It is sometimes difficult for people to understand by themselves how to protect their rights. So tools that simplify access to legal advice in an easy, convenient, and clear way are beneficial. The mobile application Your Rights is one example of this kind of tool: It is a universal free legal online guide that includes all of the necessary legal clarifications, as well as algorithms of actions for people who require legal help to protect their rights. 

At the beginning of 2021, the application was upgraded. Specifically, it now includes access to online consultations, its navigation was improved, and category integration with the WikiLegalAid legal advice platform was added. 

The application also has a new section – The Rights of People with Disabilities – which includes all current information regarding healthcare and social security, terms of employment, education and social services, rehabilitation and early intervention, barrier-free access to information and social infrastructure, and other relevant issues. 

This online guide also includes useful contacts of state institutions and civil society organizations to which a person with disabilities can apply for help. 

This section is in line with the National Strategy for a Barrier-Free Space in Ukraine, which was adopted in April 2021, and which was developed with UNDP support. 

How should digital solutions for legal aid be developed?

Inclusiveness and the human rights-based approach should be at the heart of any digital solutions in the sphere of legal aid. Moreover, the appropriateness of innovative technologies largely depends on the reason for which legal aid is required. For example, the provision of legal aid by phone or online is insufficient in cases of domestic violence. This is confirmed by the study The Impact of COVID-19 on Women’s Rights in Ukraine,  which was conducted by the Jurfem Association of Women Lawyers of Ukraine with UNDP support, and in partnership with the office of the Government commissioner for gender equality policy and the Equal Opportunities Caucus in the Verkhovna Rada.   

There are some circumstances under which a person wants to be anonymous and chooses to use a hotline or a chatbot that do not require personal information. 

Online services are also preferred by people from low mobility groups, specifically, persons who have temporary or permanent impairments that make it difficult for them to move, or who have difficulty communicating due to hearing and/or speech impairments, as well as people who live far from legal aid centres. 

Oleksandr, a participant of the focus group interview “Legal services for socially vulnerable groups” said that people from low mobility groups have limited opportunities to conduct legal actions, as they are practically locked in their homes.  

“It’s not necessary to conduct Zoom conferences,” says Oleksandr. “It could be a simple video call by phone with the help of WhatsApp or any other messenger. It would help to break the barriers of physical or transport inaccessibility.”   

When it comes to legal aid, even eye contact is important: Users who realize that they are communicating with a real specialist, rather than an online tool, will have more trust in the consultation and will be able to protect their rights more effectively. 

So the need for direct communication with a service provider is another way in which the provision of legal services differs from the provision of administrative services, and this has to be taken into account. 

Background information: 

This publication was developed under the Digital Solutions for Improved Access to Justice in Ukraine initiative, which is part of the UNDP Human Rights for Ukraine Project with the financial support of the Global Programme on Strengthening the Rule of Law and Human Rights for Sustaining Peace and Fostering Development.

This initiative aims to enhance the capacities of state institutions to provide high-quality legal services to socially vulnerable groups for the most common legal issues.