"It's not just all about the technology": Understanding the role of statewide legal information websites in expanding access to justice in the United States
Jaeger, Paul T.
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In the past fifteen years, there has been a dramatic increase in the availability of online legal resources and information specifically targeted toward low-income individuals. A network of statewide legal information websites now plays a central role in the access to justice movement in the United States. While these websites now exist in some form throughout this country, it has been more than a decade since they were last studied in depth. This study uses the perceptions and experiences of individuals involved in developing, implementing and maintaining statewide legal information websites (the "Information Providers") as the primary lens through which to explore how these websites facilitate self-help users' access to vital legal information. Three general research questions guided this study: RQ1: What are the principal activities that Information Providers engage in with respect to statewide legal information websites? RQ2: What are the different ways in which states have approached these activities? RQ3: What program development and operational issues have Information Providers faced? Data collection involved three interrelated efforts: a pilot case study, an online survey, and interviews. Themes related to infrastructure, design and implementation strategies, and operational practices emerged and evolved throughout these data collection efforts. Key themes include 1) the role of collaboration in several key areas; 2) barriers to information access faced by target users (and Information Providers' strategies to overcome these barriers); and 3) Information Providers' existing knowledge about users and site usage. In terms of policy and practice, the prevailing lack of connection between Information Providers and their users is perhaps the most significant current challenge. This lack of connection impedes efforts to conduct meaningful program evaluations, thus calling into question the ability of Information Providers to demonstrate the effectiveness of their websites. Thus, this study concludes with a proposed framework for user-centered program evaluation that leverages existing collaborative relationships to provide Information Providers with the information they need in order to provide effective assistance to self-help users.