One of the main goals of the first phase of Etic’s work on the Routes to Justice project has been to build a “rich picture” of the legal advice sector as it currently exists. By this we mean a detailed map of the various bodies which make up the legal advice system, their individual properties and the relationships between them. This exercise is designed both to deepen our general understanding of the sector and to help identify the most potentially fruitful sites for a technological intervention.

The outlines of this picture can be put together from data available from online sources such as the Charity Commission register or otherwise gathered through our own research. The rich detail required to develop high-quality insights, on the other hand, can only be obtained by speaking directly with the people who work within this system day-to-day. To this end, we conducted a series of interviews with individuals throughout the legal advice sector, covering a range of different bodies – from charities of various size to university law clinics – and degrees of authority within these organisations.

At one level, these interviews were a means of gathering raw information relating to the organisational structures, work practises and available resources of the diverse bodies currently offering affordable legal advice throughout England and Wales. We sought to understand what forms of legal advice were offered and across which localities, how clients contacted or were referred to the provider, whether any exclusion criteria were applied, the extent to which the organisation in question already employed information technology, and many other details besides. So far as possible, we attempted to secure this data in quantitative form, ideally supported by documents demonstrating the regular practises and competencies of our correspondents. Where able, we also conducted observations of our correspondents at work, allowing us to gain a first-hand understanding of how their organisations function. This kind of information, which is obviously essential for anyone attempting to understand the overall capacities of the legal advice sector, is not currently available in any systematic form, and in this regard our fieldwork proved both necessary and valuable as a means towards understanding this extremely complex system as a whole.

However, our fieldwork also had a secondary goal. As well as generating information about the structure of individual service providers and the overall system, we wanted to develop deeper insights into the experiences, opinions and aspirations of people working within the sector. The goal of the Routes to Justice project is, after all, to improve the accessibility and effectiveness of the legal aid system. What better source of ideas as to how this might be achieved than the individuals who spend their daily lives striving to make it function? To this end our interviews (designed by our very own Dr Kevin Hogan, a psychologist with over fifty years of experience of qualitative research) were semi-structured, organised around a set of general questions, themes and prompts that sought to balance our need to gather specific forms of information against our desire to allow the interviewee the freedom to lead the discussion. We wanted to provide our correspondents with the opportunity to think outside of the constraints of their daily activities, and to share ideas for local or systemic change which they may not be able to voice in other professional contexts.

For Etic Lab, one of the main lessons of our fieldwork has been the importance of reflexive self-evaluation. As we gained experience conducting interviews in this field, we were able to refine our approach, shifting our line of questioning to strike the best balance between getting the data we needed and allowing our correspondents to express themselves. Our interviewers gradually gained a sense of which prompts tended to yield interesting responses, and were hence able to introduce these at strategic moments to make sure we got the most out of every conversation. It rapidly became practice to follow an hour-long interview immediately with another hour of solo writing-up and reflection, so that the interviewer was able to consolidate their thoughts while the process was still fresh in their mind. Regular feedback and discussion between Etic operatives ensured that we were all able to benefit from each other’s experience and growth.

For now, the specific findings of our fieldwork will be reserved for discussion at a later date. At a purely methodological level, however, we believe that our Routes to Justice fieldwork has already demonstrated the value of Etic’s broad, systemic approach to the application of digital technologies, providing us with a rich and complex understanding of the problem space in which we are going to be working. We also found that our correspondents were in general very appreciative of the chance to share their thoughts and experiences in such a context. People working in the legal advice sector are, we have found, unanimously committed to providing affordable legal help to the people who need it the most, but the structures within which they work do not always afford them the chance to speak candidly and in detail about how well the current system actually serves those goals, or in what way it might be improved.

Following on from this fieldwork, the next step for Etic Lab was to use the information gathered so far as the basis of an exercise in “ontology building”, by which we mean, an attempt construct a detailed diagrammatic relationship of the organisations and relationships which make up the contemporary legal aid sector. This task will be the subject of our next post.