We are said to live in the ‘age of information’, with a vast volume of possibly relevant information available to us for every single decision – from the purchase of an everyday item to the resolution of a complex family dispute. This has led one commentator to remark that this large amount of information makes us “like a thirsty person who has been condemned to use a thimble to drink from a fire hydrant.”
Training and experience helps to enable lawyers to identify information that is current, relevant to the jurisdiction, and authoritative. However, how do unrepresented parties make sense of legal information?
This was the key research question in a project undertaken by myself and an interdisciplinary group of colleagues. Funded by the Australasian Institute of Judicial Administration, we examined how unrepresented parties involved in disputes engage with the information that they need to make sense of their legal rights and responsibilities.
The results of that research have been published in a series of forthcoming articles, including most recently in volume 27(4) of the Journal of Judicial Administration:
Jonathan Crowe, Rachael Field, Lisa Toohey, Helen Partridge and Lynn McAllister, “Understanding the Legal Information Experience of Non-lawyers: Lessons from the Family Law Context” 27(4) Journal of Judicial Administration 137.
What is “legal information experience” and why does it matter?
Research into legal needs is not a new phenomenon – and it typically focusses on the prevalence of particular types of legal problems, the interaction between different types of legal problems, and the consequences of legal problems for the wellbeing (physical, mental and financial) of individuals. An excellent example of this type of research is the large-scale legal needs survey work of the Law and Justice Foundation of NSW.
“Legal information experience” can be categorised as a subset of legal needs research, but it differs from much existing work on legal needs in its focus and methodology. While some legal needs studies may also consider the role of information, such as the sources that individuals have consulted in order to address their needs, this is usually from a perspective of satisfaction with the available options.
Research into the legal information experience, by contrast, focuses on the lived experiences of people accessing legal information, including how they locate sources of information, engage with those sources and use them to understand their situations. It uses a qualitative, interpretive research method based on in-depth interviews with a smaller sample of participants. This approach is used to gain a detailed understanding of a participant’s unique perspective and to reveal the meaning of the experience from their point of view. It therefore represents a useful complement to larger legal needs surveys in unravelling the complexities of how to best facilitate access to justice.
Our study of legal information experience identified five key issues:
- Complexity: Parties struggle with the complexity of the information experience;
- Credibility: Parties have difficulty in assessing the credibility and reliability of sources of information and the information provided;
- Preferences: Parties indicate clear source preferences, which are not the same preferences that lawyers might expect;
- Application: Parties have difficulty applying the information retrieved from various sources to their individual situation; and
- Language: Parties tend to use language that is no longer reflected in family law legislation or practice.
Each of these aspects of legal information experience has implications for how legal information can be provided, communicated and interacted with by both experts and non-experts alike. It also offers insights into how to optimise interactions between experts and non-experts.
In subsequent blog posts we will expand on these findings and the implications for dispute resolution practitioners, lawyers, and others involved in the communication of legal information.
RS Wurman, Information Anxiety 2 (Que, 2001) 15
S Kvale and S Brinkmann, InterViews: Learning the Craft of Qualitative Research Interviewing (SAGE, 2nd ed, 2009).
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