This month Joh Kirby will conclude her 11 year term with Victoria Law Foundation. She reflects on how dramatically the legal sector has changed during this period and what the future may bring for the sector and the foundation.
2017 is the 50th year of the foundation’s establishment. It also happens to be the year that I will end my term as Executive Director of the organisation. It has been a great privilege to lead the foundation for the last eight years (and work here for 11). In that time the foundation has had a significant impact on raising the profile and generating discussion about the need for improved community legal information. Along the way we have delivered some great programs that have reached out to Victorians and engaged them in the legal system. When I started at the foundation in 2006 as the Grants Manager the legal landscape was a surprisingly different place; well the world was a different place. Paper was king and things such as smart phones and apps weren’t even in the mix. Internet was slow. Dial-up connections were common – no one had heard of the NBN – and if you lived in rural or regional Victoria you were lucky if you had any internet access at all. How times have changed and I am pleased to say that the foundation has been changing with it – embracing new technologies to better service Victorians. Highlights in this area include our first major online project, Rural Law Online in 2006, a website for rural and regional Victorians; funding for the Fitzroy Handbook to go online; the Victoria Law website in 2010 and then its further evolution into Everyday-Law in 2013. Each of these projects has further developed our expertise in these areas. We have learnt lessons that have allowed us to do things better, challenge norms and ultimately better service Victorians. The international recognition of this work with a ClearMark award for the Everyday-Law website and the continual inquiries we get from Australia and overseas on our work is testimony to this. Moving forward with innovation and technology has been an essential part of our work over the past 11 years. But, and it is a big but, the use of technology will only be effective in improving Victorians’ understanding of the law for those who are able and open to accessing information in that way. For example, the foundation still has a significant print publication program. Why? Because research still shows that many Victorians still prefer to get legal information in this way, and we continue to see growing demand for our print publication titles. Often the most vulnerable in our society are unable to negotiate websites or apps to find the information that they want. However, on the flip side, we also know that more and more Victorians are looking to online resources to answer legal questions and are open to doing this in new and exciting ways. We must always be aware of and listen to our audience in developing our programs and resources. While it is easy to focus on the means of delivery, ultimately the quality of the content is the tipping factor. No matter how clever or innovative a website, an app or other digital platform, if the public can’t use it to take action then it has failed. Too often as lawyers we forget this and concentrate on telling people what we think they need to know. What we need to do is focus on what they want to know – a change in focus that makes a big difference. And what about engagement? Yes, in my time at the foundation that has been a big focus. How do we engage people in the law, make them feel more comfortable and better placed to recognise a legal problem and take action when they need to? This is a theme throughout all our work. Keep it positive, speak clearly to our audience and make it engaging. Law Week, our social media profile, Everyday-Law and our publications all speak to this. So, as I plan my life consulting on governance and clear communication I look forward to watching the further development of the legal sector. The changes brought about by the Access to Justice Review will see a incredible injection of funding to the sector and some significant changes to the foundation with the addition of a research arm. Clearly the sector and the foundation will not be the same in another 11 years’ time and that is a good thing. However, that said, what is essential is that we continue to put the needs and wants of Victorians first in our thoughts when developing and delivering our programs.