Dutch Justice Innovation Puts People First: Realizing the Potential of On-Line Dispute Resolution

Dutch Justice Innovation Puts People First: Realizing the Potential of On-Line Dispute Resolution

This week’s guest blog is written by Sherry MacLennan, Director of Public Legal Information & Applications at the BC Legal Services Society. Sherry, who is also a member of the NSRLP Advisory Board, offered to blog about her up-close look at an innovative on-line application being developed in the Netherlands via a collaborative partnership between the Dutch legal aid board, a non-profit research organization and a software developer. The emphasis the program places on support towards resolution brings to mind the BC Civil Resolution Tribunal, due to open in the Fall of 2014 (http://www.slaw.ca/2013/10/07/bcs-new-civil-resolution-tribunal) – while the harnessing of multiple sources of expertise and motivation to create an authentically user-friendly environment offers an inspiring procedural model.

In the June Newsletter, Julie mentioned that I was travelling to the Netherlands to learn about the Dutch approach to online legal information, which has been described as “a game changer.” The approach tailors information to an individual’s needs, based on a diagnostic question and answer tree.  While diagnostic approaches on medical sites are not a surprise, it is rare – for now – in the legal arena.  The US Legal Services Corporation plans to pilot a similar initiative and here in BC, we are developing MyLawBC for the spring of 2015, which will incorporate this or a similar model.

The idea is to deliver bite size pieces of information, specific to an individual’s needs.  The person looking for help is led to the tools that will enable step by step resolution of the legal problem.  In the Netherlands, access to a court is not possible in most cases without legal counsel.  As a result, the online resources are focused on out of court settlements.  The Dutch Rechtwijzer (“Signposts to Justice”) online platform covers five areas of everyday needs, dealing with government agencies, employment rights, consumer affairs and family breakdown.  There are links to information on other websites, but the platform generally tries to provide a complete resource so that people do not get lost navigating from site to site (a problem many SRLs described in the National Study: Julie).  In-person help is available at offices funded by legal aid throughout the Netherlands (submitting a personal tax ID allows for immediate legal aid assessment, not an option in Canada!) and the site may refer users to legal aid information offices.

The newest Dutch innovation is an integrated model of online service delivery for family law. It brings together tailored legal information with options to pursue unbundled, online dispute resolution services.  There is staged access to an online negotiation platform, professional mediators, legal reviewers and arbitrators, each with transparent, fixed fees.  At the first stage, an intake function collects personal information and invites the other person in the conflict to engage through an online dialogue.  The separating parties can then negotiate a separation agreement with this tool. If some issues are unresolved, the parties can request online mediation.  All the information a mediator might require is assembled within the system as a result of the intake process.  Alternatively, or as a next step if some issues remain unresolved, an online adjudication – essentially an arbitrated decision – can be obtained.  A neutral legal review of any agreement made is a final step.

Flat fees are charged at each new service point, beginning with the dialogue stage (the tailored information is a free service), and for each professional service requested afterwards, whether mediation, adjudication, or review.  These services are provided by mediators and lawyers, trained in online dispute resolution, and available at much lower rates than a traditional service because the platform supports much of the work that would ordinarily occur via traditional interviews (for example the exchange of information between lawyer and client).  The user fees are paid through the online system.  The intake stage fee pays for ongoing IT system maintenance and development upgrades.  To ensure services are available to low income clients, the Dutch legal aid plan will subsidize the user fees for financially eligible clients.  The plan also administers the professional service fees to the unbundled service providers, the mediators, legal reviewers and arbitrators.  The system will commence service to users in January, 2015.

The business model on which this service is based is as interesting as the service itself, following nearly ten years of the collaborative efforts of a Dutch university, affiliated research institute, and Dutch legal aid.  There was support from a range of stakeholders including the judiciary, government and the Bar.  The new model is the result of ongoing work from the stakeholders and is a three way public-private partnership between the Dutch legal aid board, the non-profit research organization HiiL (Hague Institute for the Internationalization of Law) and the software developer, Modria.  The platform is designed to be configurable to other jurisdictions, which is the reason for our interest at the BC Legal Services Society. New partners from other countries can benefit from investments already made in the Netherlands, and contribute to the sustainability of the approach.  Joining forces among legal aid boards in this way, developing international quality standards, and thus improving access to justice, is the dream of Peter van den Biggelaar, director of the Dutch legal aid board.

Here in BC we shall be watching the progress of “Signposts to Justice” with great interest. The Dutch innovations make it easier to find answers to legal questions and will offer tools at one’s finger tips to actually solve problems.  In Canada, where geography is often a barrier to accessing services, online services can reduce that barrier.  For the many people who cannot afford the costs of traditional legal assistance, online service delivery offers a new option.  Litigation will always be essential in certain cases but services such as these that focus on dispute resolution introduce new possibilities – for people trying to figure out how to separate without going broke – and for the professionals looking for more effective ways to assist.  Although these are early days, such digital innovations may be part of near future solutions for increasing access to justice.

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