Online assistance portals—websites that provide information to people navigating civil legal matters, such as child custody, eviction, and debt collections—range widely in scope and quality. Some are very robust, offering comprehensive coverage of legal issues and a wealth of resources, while others are narrowly focused on specific functions, such as providing information for veterans or referring eligible visitors to other legal or social services. Although portals hold promise for helping people understand and resolve civil legal issues, until now, little rigorous analysis has examined whether and how these platforms can best meet users’ needs.
Now however, a new study, commissioned by The Pew Charitable Trusts and conducted by Auburn University's now-shuttered Center for Evaluation (ACE), has examined portal accessibility, usability, and effectiveness. ACE’s report presents key findings from its nationwide scan of portals as well as an in-depth evaluation of the content, functionality, and usage of four statewide portals: LawHelpMN in Minnesota, Ohio Legal Help, and Legal Navigator in Hawaii and Alaska.
The researchers found that LawHelpMN and Ohio Legal Help were exemplary in terms of their content and functionality: They provide timely and relevant resources; are accessible to users who have disabilities, have a low reading level, or lack knowledge of legal terminology; attract high and growing numbers of visitors; and are held in high regard by stakeholders. However, the evaluation also notes that challenges related to the tracking of case outcomes can obscure the portals’ long-term benefits to users and offers recommendations for improvement, such as collecting more data on how users navigate the portal and linking site data with legal service providers, civil courts, and other information sources.
In its assessment of Legal Navigator, the study highlights several features as particularly promising, including the option to provide visitors with individualized case plans. But the report also notes that the platform’s development process was characterized by some key challenges, and it outlines important lessons learned from that experience.