An online platform that recently launched in South Australia to provide free and accessible legal advice has proven successful through its first few months of existence. Legal Chat, a chat room where members of the public can communicate directly with lawyers in order to obtain answers to their questions, has served more than 1,000 individuals across the space of just four months.
Since October 2015, lawyers have served over 1,000 clients through the platform, which provides real-time, two-way communication much like an instant messaging service or internet chatroom. The majority of clients – around 600 – have sought advice on matters that fall under the domain of civil law. These include wills and probate matters, boundary disputes, and tenancy disputes. Around 200 individuals have sought advice on criminal legal issues, most of which were motoring offences, and a similar number have turned to the platform for help with matters of family law.
The platform is the first of its kind to launch in Australia, and its success has been taken as an indicator that this kind of venture could be useful in other parts of the world too. It has also been heralded as a good sign at a time when many countries, including the UK, are looking into ways to use digital technology to improve the way the law operates. The attraction of Legal Chat to clients is not just the fact that the advice is free, but that it is also easily-accessible to anybody with an internet connection without the need to visit a legal office in person or speak to somebody over the phone.
Indeed, accessibility is the key issue that Legal Chat was founded to deal with. Many of those living in South Australia’s rural areas struggle when it comes to accessing legal advice, and those living in smaller and more remote country towns had little or no physical access to professional lawyers without undertaking considerable travel. There is a telephone advice line provided by the Legal Services Commission, but this receives very large volumes of calls – around 80,000 over the course of 2015 – and is often overstretched.
Legal Chat provides an accessible and somewhat more manageable alternative to the telephone helpline, and could help relieve some of the pressure that line is under and reduce waiting times for those who continue to use it. Furthermore, a survey of Legal Chat’s users showed that more than three quarters (79%) found an online advice service preferable to a telephone one. For many, the major advantage of getting advice through an online chat room instead of over the phone is the increased level of privacy, allowing advice to be more readily obtained in public spaces and workplaces.