Review of the Scottish Legal Aid Board site
As a civil legal aid practitioner I am used to being, in turns, incredibly infuriated by and absurdly grateful to the Scottish Legal Aid Board, but how would its website affect me?
Scottish Legal Aid Board
The SLAB website, let’s be honest, looks a little bit outdated. There’s nothing particularly wrong with it, but it doesn’t have any of the bold, modern stylings that we have come to expect from today’s public sector site. However, I have never been one to favour form over substance so, what does the site actually have to say for itself?
The first thing to say is that the site has a very clear idea of its target audiences. This is not always the case with large organisations, so bonus points for splitting the site into three distinct surfer groups: applicants, solicitors and advice agencies. Lazy journalists should go straight to the press releases to find out who was paid most from the legal aid fund last year. There is a lot of information on the site and it can sometimes be hard to track it down.
To start with the applicant section, this carries the heading “Getting Legal Help” – again very good consideration of the target user. This page is reasonably well laid out and carries links to all the information you could possibly want, including information for opponents on how to object to legal aid being granted (I was pleased to see this was buried halfway down the page!). A particular highlight is the civil legal aid calculator, which will tell you whether you qualify financially (there is another for advice & assistance).
My favourite bit from this section is the multimap feature: www.multimap.com/share/slab/, which helps you to find a solicitor who is (a) registered for legal aid, (b) a practitioner in the relevant field of law, and (c) nearby. It is a terrific wee feature and one which I use often to help potential clients where we cannot take their case. It is also head and shoulders above the Society’s “Find a Solicitor” feature (www.lawsocietyofscotland.org.uk), although it appears that this may be still in development, so I’ll withhold final judgment for the time being. There is information designed for children, but I’ll wager that not one under-16 year old has ever clicked and scrolled to the small box with the text “If you are a child, Legal aid for children explains the types of legal aid available.”
As far as solicitors are concerned, most of the SLAB forms you are ever likely to need can be downloaded as PDF files, although the ease of use and formatting varies between forms. The Legal Aid Handbook and relevant legislation is all online and very well cross referenced and indexed. This is particularly useful for cutting and pasting legal aid rules when applying for a review of a refusal decision. And, of course, as the SLAB homepage reminds us in urgent tones, “switch off from paper to online will happen in March 2011” – so the homepage is also a portal for Legal Aid Online (https://laol.slab.org.uk/), which will be the only way to get legal aid as of this time next year. If you want to use it, you need to register, but let me encourage you to do so. It’s really very useful and mostly easy to use. True, there are some teething problems, e.g. when making a special urgency request as part of a non-family CIV/SOL application, you may use no more than 128 characters to describe both the reason for the urgency and the work proposed – 12 fewer than if you were making the application using Twitter!
As far as the advice sector is concerned, there isn’t a great deal of content. Some general links to other parts of the site containing general information on legal aid are about the size of it – plus some info on advice agencies receiving SLAB funding. Actually, since these (and Part V projects) are an increasingly important way in which SLAB delivers legal assistance, it would be good if there were more information on these organisations, including contact details, opening hours, work undertaken, maybe even a mini-site for the Part V civil assistance office in Inverness.
That isn’t intended to sound negative, which wouldn’t be fair for a site I use in one guise or another most days. So, to show there’s no hard feelings, here’s some (free) advice for SLAB on improving their website:
- improve the navigation, making things easier to find;
- develop a widget so that solicitors’ firms can put the calculators on their own websites;
- if you’re going to have information for children, be a bit more child-friendly about it;
- iron out some of the wrinkles in legal aid online; and
- provide more information on how to access the direct provision now being made by SLAB or those agencies it funds.
The website review column is written by Iain A Nisbet of Govan Law Centre e: firstname.lastname@example.org. All of these links and hundreds more can be found at www.absolvitor.com. Absolvitor is also now on Facebook: http://bit.ly/absolvitor