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general interest



Recently, a ground-breaking conference on gamification was held in San Francisco that drew hundreds of participants. What, you ask, is gamification?

Gamification is taking ideas from games and using them in other contexts to encourage people to take certain actions. Fitness apps are a good example of this. On the one end of the scale, there are apps like Fitocracy, which awards you points for working out and lets you compete with friends. On the other extreme you have apps like Zombies, Run!, which has you listen to a story as you run; every once in a while, zombies will attack and you have to run as fast as you can. Once the danger has passed, you can return to jogging. (Some of you may recognize that this is actually interval training.)
You may be wondering what this has to do with legal aid. The idea of gamification definitely sounds like it’s a bit out there, but if you think about it, it really is just an application of behavioural psychology. Now that’s something that we’re really interested in. We spend a lot of time trying to explain really long and complicated processes. We know that some people will drop out of any online process, legal or otherwise. There could be a lot of reasons for this – from the stress of a situation to getting distracted by the family pet – regardless of the reason, we need to know if there are ways we can tweak how we present information to encourage people to keep at it and not give up.

San Francisco

How do you motivate people to do things that they know they should do but can’t quite make themselves do? In general, I think most people who come to us start out very motivated; they want a divorce or they need to help a friend find help with their legal problem. But the fact is that most legal issues can’t be solved in one sitting. They take time and, as that time passes, things crop up in their lives that affect how motivated they are.

One of the experts in motivation is BJ Fogg, a professor at Stanford and a keynote speaker at the San Francisco conference. To oversimplify his message to one sentence: for someone to do a certain behaviour, they need to be motivated to do it, have the ability to do it, and then have the thought to do it. In our case, we’ve put a lot of work into making sure that people have the ability to use our resources. With what we’ve learned about the theory of motivation, we have a good starting point for making our resources more engaging, which should hopefully help people stick with them to achieve what they set out to.

Emperor_Joshua_A__Norton_ISan Francisco Fact: Joshua Norton, Emperor of the United States of America and Protector of Mexico, was one of San Francisco’s most famous residents. He declared himself Emperor of the United States in 1859 and lived out his life in San Francisco as a local celebrity and even issued his own currency, which was accepted in the city.

He was once arrested by a police officer who wanted him institutionalized. There was a public outcry and the Police Chief ordered Norton released saying, “that he had shed no blood; robbed no one; and despoiled no country; which is more than can be said of his fellows in that line.” After that, he was saluted by any San Francisco police officers who saw him in the street.

–Nate Prosser, Online Outreach Coordinator

The law: let me Google that for you

There’s an interesting anomaly when you look at how young people use the Internet. They use it for everything: to shop, socialize, waste time, find jobs, and pretty much anything else you can think of. What they don’t seem to use it for is to help them to solve their legal issues.

Catrina Denvir from the University College of London set out to look at this anomaly, and has released her initial findings. It’s fascinating, especially since we spend so much of our time and energy making legal information available online. To talk about this though, we’re going to have to pull the current back a bit and share some of our experiences making legal information websites.

The study

Ms. Denvir’s preliminary work looked at 100 students aged 18–24 from the University College of London. Participants were given six questions based on a hypothetical scenario (having to do with either housing or employment) and asked to try and answer them without the help of the Internet. They were then allowed to use the Internet to either verify or revise their answers.

So, how did they do?

The good

The Internet did increase the students’ knowledge and helped them answer the questions. On average, the students answered more questions correctly when they were allowed to use the Internet.

This is fantastic! Considering how much legal information we put online, it would be really disheartening if the opposite was true.

The bad

Students typically spent less than 10 minutes searching for answers. When you look at legal questions — and we don’t know how complicated the questions the students were asked were — 10 minutes doesn’t seem like a long time. From our perspective though, this isn’t too surprising. People’s attention spans are short on the Internet.

Some participants didn’t consider jurisdiction when looking at information. The Internet rarely recognizes borders. Search engines can lead people to sites outside their own jurisdiction, which is why it is so important to identify that our information is about the law in BC.

When students went to look for answers, they focused consistently on search engines. They rarely browsed through sites or used search functions in sites. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it isn’t good either. It means that sites need to make sure that they are in the top Google search results for pretty much everything they cover. For example, being on the first page of Google for “divorce” isn’t good enough; you need to try and cover as may iterations of questions around divorce as possible. That isn’t an easy task.

The ugly

Just because they could use the Internet to find information about the law and their rights didn’t mean that the participants knew what to do next. Despite knowing what their rights were, they often couldn’t identify what next steps to take. In a bit of serendipity, this is a problem that we’ve been mulling over for a while now. User testing of print and online information is critically important to make sure that people can take action. We are increasingly aware that you can have a fantastic pamphlet explaining the law, but if it doesn’t explicitly lay out what the next steps are, people will often flounder. We’ve been including clear steps in many of our publications — our self-help guides for example— and we’re working to include more of that in the future.

What does this mean?

It means that the Internet can be an effective tool for helping people solve their legal problems, but you need to meet users — not just youth — on their own terms. It’s a bad habit to think that just because these people have a legal problem, they will adapt and consume the information the way that we want them to. It’s not an easy process, but it’s an important one. Lately we’ve been putting more and more effort into putting ourselves in a room with the people who use our publications and finding out what works for them and what they want to see. That is ultimately the lesson that we need to take from this.

Catrina Denvir’s full report will be available early in 2014.

–Nate Prosser, Online Outreach Coordinator

How an afternoon with advocates made me understand Luddites

Safety Net Canada

SafetyNetCanada_green7Every fall we hold our Provincial Advocates Conference, which trains advocates from all around the province on legal issues.

Day one of the training was just for our community partners and I had a chance spend the day with them. Community partners are organizations across BC – in 24 communities right now – that work with people who may need legal aid. As part of their day-to-day jobs, they deal with people who need legal aid or who could use our resources, so we make sure that they are trained, up-to-date, and ready to point those people in our direction.

Part of the day was spent updating all of these advocates on legal aid services and resources: updates to our websites, new publications, ways of sharing information, and more. By request, the rest of the day was spent on a really interesting, and kind of scary, presentation by BC Society of Transition Houses’ Safety Net Canada Project on the (mis)use of technology and violence against women. Many of our community partners work often support women and their children leaving abusive relationships and in recent years technology has been used more and more for harassment and stalking.

I deal with technology and the online world all the time. In fact it’s most of what I do at LSS. But some of the stuff that was brought up in that presentation absolutely floored me. I mean, I know that digital photos can contain location data about where they were taken, or that spyware can record what you type, or that you can disguise your phone number as someone else’s, but the implications of what that could mean for someone fleeing an abusive relationship never really crossed my mind. Some of it never even occurred to me; for example, I hate email forms – those text boxes that some sites make you fill out rather than just giving you an email address – but someone brought up that using them means that email addresses, say for a women’s shelter, doesn’t get stored in the address book or your email isn’t sitting in the sent folder. Two very real issues if someone is trying to track your online communications.

It’s pretty sobering, really, and I find it all a bit striking that people like our community partners have to think about this stuff every day at their jobs. I don’t want to fear monger though. The session wasn’t just about the dangers of technology. It was also about mitigating those dangers to protect yourself, and using technology to your advantage. While I don’t think I’ll be deleting my Twitter account any time soon, I can definitely start to see where Luddites are coming from.

I can’t speak for our community partners, but I had an eye opening afternoon that day. If the last three days were as interesting as the first, then I think everyone will walk away prepared to do a better job helping and advocating for their clients.

–Nate Prosser, Online Outreach Coordinator at LSS

The 2013 Public Legal Education and Information Forum


Registration for the 2013 Public Legal Education and Information Forum (PLIEF) is now open.

The PLEIF conference is October 9 – 10, 2013 in Vancouver.  The conference gives people and organizations who speak with the public about legal issues a chance for to discuss their work and the issues they encounter every day. Sessions this year focus on legal literacy and building legal capability.

Note that the first day — October 9 — is open only to Public Legal Education Association of Canada members.

You can find the agenda and registration details on the People’s Law School website.

Family Literacy Day

LiteracyJanuary 27, 2013 is Family Literacy Day, created in 1999 as a national initiative to raise awareness about the importance of reading and engaging in other literacy-related activities as a family.

Low literacy is an issue for us at LSS. Two issues actually. First of all, it’s our job to take the law and explain it in what we call “plain language.” That means we try to boil it down so that as many people as possible can understand it (which could result in either more or fewer words). If you’ve ever seen legislation then you know that it’s not the easiest thing for a layperson to understand. Secondly, we also know that unfortunately some of our clients are less than fully literate. Some may not read or write well, or even at all.

We’ve been working to address these issues and do a better job. Last year we commissioned a report on how accessible our materials are, and how we could improve them. One of the groups that worked on this report was Decoda Literacy Solutions who specialize in improving literacy.

Since receiving that report, we’ve taken steps to not only make our publications more useful and readable but also to learn how to help people with low literacy when we see them in person. You can start to see some of the strides we’ve made when you look at our newer publications like Defending Yourself: Theft Under $5,000.

There are a lot of ways that families can work together to improve literacy and the results pay dividends. So, take a minute and check out the Family Literacy Day website and find out how you can participate.

A child can have five parents and four other things I learned at the 2012 Provincial Advocates Conference

Last week was the 2012 LSS/Law Foundation Provincial Advocates Conference. More than 100 people from across the province who work directly with those who need legal help gathered in Richmond for an intensive three-day conference. I was there on the first day, floating between sessions and talking to people. Here are five things I learned:

1. The transition to the new Family Law Act will be very interesting

All right, I may have had an inkling of this before but it really sank in when JP Boyd outlined a scenario, albeit a far-fetched one, where a child could legally have five parents; two intended parents who enlist two donors (sperm and egg) and then use a surrogate to carry the child. That’s an extreme example and one I’d wager you won’t be seeing that often. But there are many smaller changes in the act that you’ll see every day and that will take some getting used to.

“We have a really brand new way of talking about kids in the new legislation.”

With the new act coming into effect in just a few months, it was understandably the main focus of the conference and one of the most popular topics for participants. JP’s session was the most popular one I saw all day.

If you’re interested in what JP was talking about, read our Guide to the New BC Family Law Act, which he co-wrote.

2. Aboriginal access to justice is complicated

Two things struck me from the session Updates in Aboriginal Law: Aboriginal law can be really complicated, and there aren’t enough lawyers in remote communities who practice it. This means that in many communities, if you have an issue of, say, dividing property on a reserve, you have to navigate a complicated system with little-to-no help. What I heard from the advocates is that this situation is leaving a lot of people in limbo with nowhere to go to for help.

3. Advocates love sharing advice and tips

In all the sessions I went to, the advocates were keen to share their stories and any tips or advice they had. Advocates often face an uphill battle, working on complicated and stressful issues with few resources. It seemed to me that that maybe the most helpful part of the conference was getting a bunch of advocates from all across BC into one room so they can vent, commiserate, and tell each other about how they solved problems that they all encounter.

4. The Provincial Call Centre is working better

Part of the day was spent on updates about legal aid. The thing that stood out the most to me was that the wait times for our Call Centre have been significantly cut. No one likes being on hold. It used to be that you’d have to wait, on average, seven minutes before you could talk to one of our workers. Now the wait time is around two minutes. Because people don’t have to wait as long, fewer of them are hanging up before they get to talk to anyone. The number of people who abandon their calls has been cut in half since the wait times went down.

5. Conferences are really hard to put on

Just watching people here at LSS putting this conference together over the last few months has been exhausting. They’ve been organizing the conference for months and the pace has just gotten more and more frantic as November approached. On behalf of everyone who attended, I’d like to thank my colleagues at LSS and friends at the Law Foundation who worked so hard to put this conference together.

If you didn’t get a chance to attend the conference, don’t worry. Sometime in the not-too-distant future, we’ll upload all the conference materials onto our site. We’ll make an announcement here once they’ve been uploaded, so keep your eyes open.

Nate Prosser is the online outreach coordinator at LSS.

Changing your relationship status: Social media and family law

“I saw you tweeted that tumblr post I put on Facebook.”

A few years ago, that sentence would have been complete gibberish, and you’d think twice about sitting down beside someone who said that on a bus. Nowadays, however, you wouldn’t give it a second thought. That’s how ingrained social media has become in our everyday lives; in fact, half of all Canadians use social media.

As social media penetrates our lives, it’s no surprise that it’s having greater and greater implications under the law. A quick search of CanLII — an electronic legal research database — shows that 167 court decisions mentioned Facebook in the first half of 2012 in Canada.

While its use in criminal law has been big news before — tracking down rioters, for example — its effects on family law have been more subtle.

A survey in the UK found that Facebook was cited as a contributing factor to more than one third of divorce cases. For example, Facebook’s list of suggested friends alerted two women to the fact that they were married to the same man. Not only is social media a contributing factor to family law cases, it’s increasingly being used as evidence in these cases.

Your status updates and posts, which are often public, could affect custody, spousal support, or more. They can be used to demonstrate a number of things:

  • your state of mind;
  • proof of communication;
  • proof of time and place; and
  • evidence of actions

This isn’t necessarily limited to what is publicly visible, either; a judge in Connecticut ordered a couple to divulge their Facebook and dating site passwords during their divorce proceedings.

It’s not entirely clear how social media will continue to shape and affect family law, but apparently, it’s having an effect, so perhaps it’s best to keep an eye on what you’re posting.

Remembering Allan Parker

Allan Parker, QC, was a respected lawyer, teacher, mentor, and friend to many poverty lawyers, paralegals, and community advocates. Sadly, he passed away on June 13, 2012. Allan was a long-time friend of many at the Legal Services Society, and we know he was a friend to many of you as well.

John Simpson, our manager of Community and Publishing Services, has written an obituary that will appear in the November issue of the Advocate. You can read it here.

What are those strange-looking squares?

If you’ve checked out our new videos (see the first two here and here), then you’ve seen these strange pixelated boxes. You’ve probably also seen them around on posters, wine bottles, and flyers. But what are they exactly?

These collections of squares are called QR codes (QR = quick response). They’re special barcodes that store information like phone numbers, calendar events, and website addresses. Mostly they’re used as a quick way to share website links with people who aren’t necessarily at a computer.

To read these codes, you need a mobile device with a built-in camera that allows you to download a barcode reader application. You can try out RedLaser (iPhone, Windows Mobile, and Android) or QR Code Scanner Pro (Blackberry) or any of the many other free apps out there.

When you launch your app of choice, you’ll notice that the camera comes on and you’ll see a framing guide on your screen. Just line up the QR code within that framing guide and the app will read the code and show you the embedded information. Take a look at the video below to see one in action.

Pretty soon you’ll see QR codes on all our new publications — that lead you to further information — so keep an eye out.

Happy scanning!

ELAN goes to the movies!

ELAN is now coming to you in video form! Take a look at our first effort below.

As the video says, here at LSS, we want to present information about legal aid in as engaging a way as possible. Over the next few weeks, we’ll conduct an experiment using short two-to-three-minute videos to tell you about what’s going on in the world of legal aid and give you a glimpse inside LSS. Let us know what you think!

Keep an eye out for those videos here or on our YouTube channel.