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Access to justice for society’s most vulnerable

Amid dwindling legal aid and rising numbers of people forced to represent themselves, Freshfields has collaborated with RCJ Advice, using innovative legal tools to ensure the UK’s most vulnerable people have access to justice.

Unprecedented cuts to legal aid and other advice agency funding sources have led to an increase in ‘litigants in person’ (LIPs), those who represent themselves in court. LIPs can find the court process daunting, with mistakes risking their case being thrown out or wasting scarce court resources.

The CourtNav platform (created in partnership between Freshfields and RCJ Advice) assists people to complete complicated court documents.

CourtNav is an online ‘decision-tree’ tool that uses a simple question-and-answer interface to advise LIPs on civil court rules, and to automatically complete court forms and documents. Launched in 2013 with a divorce module, CourtNav has recently been expanded and improved – the latest module assists female victims of domestic abuse seeking non-molestation orders.

A unique and pioneering platform

Freshfields and RCJ Advice were among the first to realise the potential of decision tree tools to improve legal services for those struggling to access the courts. “To our knowledge, it was the first tool in the UK to use document assembly to prepopulate court forms, with content checked remotely by a lawyer,” says Freshfields Head of Pro Bono, Paul Yates, who proposed CourtNav to Freshfields’ longstanding pro bono partner RCJ Advice back in 2012.

“But even more ‘innovative’ is our sustained and long-term commitment to developing the platform,” Paul adds. “Often new tech products are a clever idea which is prototyped, wins awards, and then does not prove to be sustainable. By contrast, we have – over several years – learnt lessons from previous iterations and worked to improve the platform so that this new module will be even more impactful.”

The divorce module showed that, for the most vulnerable to access the tool, the frontline agencies who have established trust with potential users need to be closely involved. So, the new CourtNav module functions as the centrepiece of a wider network of frontline agencies, launched in October 2018 (Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors or FLOWS). These frontline services, such as women’s refuges, are given access to CourtNav and are supported by phone and email consultancy advice.  Cases eligible for legal aid are identified and referred out to a network of over 65trusted and domestic-abuse accredited practitioners.

The project also involved several different teams within Freshfields: Paul Yates advised on the development of the initial module and its decision trees; the Freshfields IT team built an early prototype and provided guidance in selecting the developers; the Freshfields PR team advised on press and publicity initiatives (and came up with the name CourtNav); and the Freshfields IP team advised on trademark registration.

Meaningful change

CourtNav makes the court process quicker and less stressful for vulnerable women, and helps ensure they get effective access to the laws to whose protection they are entitled – safe in the knowledge that their form content has been verified by a lawyer.   

Another impact of the CourtNav platform has been to unlock new sources of funding: a £1m grant from the Tampon Tax has funded the development of this new module and the wider FLOWS service. An external consultant has been appointed to measure the impact of the new module.

CourtNav has also transformed RCJ Advice’s service, allowing RCJ Advice to help more people and to focus its scarce face-to-face resources on those who need it the most.

RCJ Advice’s CEO Alison Lamb notes: “The support we have received from Freshfields, not on only on our core civil legal rota at the Royal Courts of Justice but also significantly with CourtNav, is invaluable. We have completed the test phase of FL401 module and all but one of the 50 women were supported to achieve successful applications. CourtNav identified legally aided clients, with our solicitor partners picking cases up in as little as 40 seconds. Women also reported they could use CourtNav on their own, with one woman telling us that the form and statement produced by CourtNav were accepted by the Judge without question. We are now extending the promotion of CourtNav to respond to domestic abuse across England & Wales.”