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Designing digital justice

Designing digital justice

By Professor Kathy Laster


The legal sector can learn from the design approach of the retail sector.

What do the taxi industry, a department store and a supermarket have in common with the legal system? This sounds like the beginning of a bad lawyer joke, but the digital revolution has disrupted diverse service providers in surprisingly similar ways. Online platforms now facilitate direct access to goods and services of all kinds thereby shrinking, even eliminating “wholesalers” or middlemen.

So what lessons can lawyers, courts and tribunals learn from the consumer-led DIY direct service push? And how do we redesign our legal system to meet the retail nature of the digital world?

Community expectations are shaped by ordinary people’s experience as consumers accessing services. In this DIY era, technology offers an enhanced version of collective wisdom – accessible information coupled with aggregated ratings. Most consumers have been empowered in ways that were unimaginable even 20 years ago.

A casualty of the shift to this consumer-centric world, according to Daniel and Richard Susskind, is the demise of the professions.1The Susskinds maintain the professions evolved as privileged intermediaries, entrusted with managing the complexities of life in print-based industrial society. In technology-based internet society, knowledge, or at least access to information, has been radically democratised. Respect for expertise of all kinds, including the value proposition of the professions, is coming unstuck.

A related, but probably more profound consequence is the collapse of understanding society as hierarchical. It is now acknowledged that the beginning of the Industrial Revolution was marked by the collapse of the feudal order, overtaken by a burgeoning middle class. But even then society remained a triangle, albeit with porous dividing lines through marriage/money and/or educational achievement.

In the digital age, the understanding, and even the image, of society has been irreversibly transformed. The ubiquitous triangle with a vertical axis has now become a circle (with various aggressive arrows trying to break in horizontally). Entrepreneurial and creative endeavour, rather than a degree or pedigree, now guarantee entry into the inner circle of status and wealth.

The reframed challenge for social policy has become the promotion of inclusion via access to the intricately networked circle that characterises our interconnected social world. Metaphors and images are imperfect, but revealing.

The recommendations of the Department of Justice and Regulation’s Access to Justice Review2 seek to make the legal system more accessible via better information, improved triaging and referral processes, and integrated pathways to support high need groups. Greater use of ICT, including online dispute resolution, is also high on the agenda. Courts and tribunals are becoming more attuned to the needs of users.

All these worthy efforts though, essentially retrofit consumer sensibilities onto a wholesale system. Architecture, language and process are still predicated on having skilled professionals to navigate the system. Yet these professionals are now unavailable and unaffordable for most people. For example, no one is sure what to do about the growing number of court users who are, tellingly, discussed as the “problem of unrepresented litigants”. The business model and design approach of the retail sector may offer some guidance.

Retail design combines specialists in architecture and interior design, industrial design, graphic design, ergonomics, psychology and advertising. Because the primary goal of retailers is to secure sales, “envirometrics” are carefully evaluated. Small changes, like effective signage and music, have been shown to have an impact on behaviour. In retail environments, staff are selected for and trained in customer service and systems are built around the customer, not the service provider.

Retailers are also skilled marketers. Understandably, judges have been loathe to enter the political fray but are slowly coming to appreciate that brand and the protection of it, are necessary to both retain public confidence and, in a competitive public sector environment, to secure funding.

Much of the legal system deals with reluctant clients and is generally not interested in return business. However, the legal sector has come late to concepts like user-centred design. The rule of law depends on respect for legal institutions so a systematic rethink of our approach to community education, engagement and service delivery is in order. Just like retailers, we can fit the technology around the particular human needs of our users.


Professor Kathy Laster is director of the Sir Zelman Cowen Centre at Victoria University. This is a modified version of a talk delivered for lawyers and designers during Victorian Design Week.


1. Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind, The Future of the Professions: How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts, Oxford University Press, 2015.

2. Victorian Government, Access to Justice Review: Report and Recommendations, August 2016.

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