Legal information and technology

A2J Guided Interviews and online interactive PLEI

Guest post by Erik Bornmann
Guest post by Erik Bornmann

Online interactive public legal education and information (PLEI) is helping some Ontario community legal clinics (clinics) serve their communities in new ways. Using customizable interactive software, called A2J Guided Interviews (A2Js), a partnership of clinics is delivering PLEI embedded in online tools for intake, document assembly, and referrals.

A2J Guided Interviews in a nutshell

A2Js present an avatar that interviews the user online. The avatar guides the user through a series of questions. Behind the scenes, a decision tree determines what question is asked next. The path can change in response to the user’s answers. When the interview ends, the information can be used to create documents and other electronic records.

Use of PLEI in A2J Guided Interviews

The A2Js have helped create new capacity at some clinics in Ontario, particularly in three areas of activity:

  • preparing appeals of denials of Ontario Disability Support Program benefits (ODSP denials)
  • supporting student volunteers to deliver clinic services
  • helping clinics work more efficiently with community agencies to serve hard-to-reach clients

This is a photo which depicts a legal professional sitting with a client and using an A2J guided interview.
Embedded PLEI is a part of each of these applications. The interactive nature of the software lets clinics present PLEI in new ways, both during the interview and afterwards. Presently, the A2Js embed PLEI in one or more of five interactive formats:

  • helping complete forms
  • identifying legal needs
  • tailoring information to the user’s circumstances
  • recommending PLEI titles and other online tools
  • making referrals to local assistance

Form completion

A2Js are often used in the United States to help self-represented litigants fill out court forms. One way that A2Js help is by presenting instructions or tips for each question. The A2J has a “Learn More” that can appear next to the question, prompting the user to view PLEI specific to the question.

Clinics have expanded the concept beyond self-help – they use A2Js to present PLEI to non-lawyers, such as students or community workers. This PLEI is embedded in A2Js that create forms and documents for ODSP denial intakes and tenant applications for repair problems, for example:

  • instructions on when to use a form
  • definitions
  • tips on how to identify, describe, and prove material facts
  • how to fill complete specific form fields
  • tips on collecting evidence
  • explanations of legal procedures, rules, and deadlines)
  • date and amount calculators
  • explanation of legal claims and remedies
  • next steps such as how to access legal advice or process forms

Identifying legal needs

A2Js deliver PLEI that helps users identify legal needs interactively. Two clinics use the A2J guiding feature to help community workers spot legal problems for clients by presenting a series of plain language questions about the client’s situation. This feature then alerts the interviewer if the answers suggest a potential issue. This helps community workers flag deadlines for the clinic and detect legal problems.

Consider an A2J that clients use to apply online for service at a clinic. The A2J asks broad questions about general need, for instance whether there are concerns about housing. Using the answers, the A2J asks subsequent, more specific, questions about housing, which guides the user to identify needs to be discussed with the clinic during intake.

Because the A2Js support community workers to spot legal needs sooner, the clinic can move more quickly to triage urgent matters, mitigate escalating problems, and make sure issues don’t get missed. This has been especially helpful with newcomers who don’t speak English or French, and people who are homeless in rural and remote communities, especially when the community worker speaks the client’s language or is situated in the client’s rural or remote community.

Information tailored to personal circumstances

Personalized PLEI tailored to the client’s situation is presented by using A2Js to combine the ”just-in-time” PLEI methodology by helping to identify legal needs and then presenting PLEI relevant to those needs.

A2Js for tenants who want to apply to the Landlord and Tenant Board about repair problems, for example, might include PLEI about ending a tenancy. The information is tailored to be relevant to the client’s situation, for instance whether the client is still in the unit and the client’s intention to remain.

For the future, work is underway on an intake A2J for use by students and community workers who help clients that uses this methodology to present short PLEI excerpts about different choices of venue and next steps. An example is PLEI about a work-related problem that concerns intersecting issues of employment and human rights law. Another example is PLEI about housing problems involving subsidized rental units, which can concern intersecting issues of housing, social assistance, and human rights law.

Recommending PLEI titles and tools

Some clinics use A2Js to recommend PLEI titles in the course of supporting student volunteers and community agencies to interview clients. Depending on where the client is in the process, the A2J recommends a PLEI title at the end of interview. Examples of recommended PLEI include CLEO’s guide for medical professionals completing an ODSP application and a local clinic’s next steps for getting legal assistance.

Similarly, the A2J for tenant applications about housing repairs presents a link to an interactive web tool for tenants with roommates to help them identify which housing law process is available to them.

This is a screenshop from an A2J guided interview.

Local referrals

PLEI embedded in A2J helps community agencies facilitate referrals, both to the local clinic as well as to other service providers. By helping to identify legal needs and then presenting PLEI relevant to those needs, the A2J recommends sources for further help. It can also send an electronic referral alert to one or more of the referral organizations.

This type of A2J formatted PLEI is currently being used by two agency networks: an alliance to end homelessness and a partnership of newcomer settlement service providers. Both networks include a community legal clinic.

A critical feature of this type of PLEI is that non-legal agencies can use it to make multiple non-legal referrals at once. In addition to identifying needs, the A2J guides the user to ask location and other program-qualifying characteristics. This helps with the coordination of services within networks of agencies that make many referrals to one another. It also ensures that clients don’t get lost in the process.

Erik Bornmann is a staff lawyer at Community Legal Clinic – Simcoe, Haliburton, Kawartha Lakes, the project managing partner of the Clinic Interview Partnership (“Clinic IP”). Clinic IP creates and delivers online interactive PLEI, using A2Js and other software. It is a partnership of 17 community legal clinics with a mission to create A2Js that increase the capacity of Ontario’s poverty law clinics. The project has developed 10 A2Js that leverage technology in conjunction with person-to-person services. These tools help staff, students, community agencies, and clients. An area of particular project interest is trusted intermediaries, a channel of PLEI delivery to hard-to-reach people.