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Scott, Sue --- "Law online: how do people access and use legal information on the Internet?" [2000] AltLawJl 9; (2000) 25(1) Alternative Law Journal 24

Law online: how do people access and use legal information on the Internet?

How do people access and use legal information on the Internet?

Sue Scott[*]

Informed participation in the legal system is integral to a democratic and civil society. Knowledge of the law is a necessary basis for civic activity, and for people’s capacity to comply with, use, and critique the law.

A number of reports on how to increase access to justice highlight the lack of knowledge of the legal system and the need to provide up-to date, relevant information:

… the [Law Reform] Commission noted that there appears to be a general lack of knowledge about the legal system among Australians and that this lack of knowledge denies many people the opportunity to participate in the process or to understand the reason why the legal system affects them in particular ways … a co-ordinated information strategy involving the Commonwealth and State agencies would ensure a far better use of resources.[1]
… the real access issue is obtaining good up-to-date information — it is therefore important that community workers are well informed about social security and about how to access advice and information.[2]

The Internet would seem to provide an ideal way to provide this up-to-date, relevant information. It has the potential to reach a wide audience, material is easily updated, and costs are less than providing the same material in print. There is already an impressive amount of Australian legal information being provided free of charge via the Internet, including legislation, case law and plain English guides to the law.

But what do we know about whether this material is reaching the people in the community who need it? In this article I draw together findings from the research literature on both information-seeking behaviour and Internet use, and discuss the implications of these findings for provision of legal information via the Internet.

As well as having the potential to increase knowledge and understanding of the law in our society, the Internet has the potential to increase citizen participation in the framing and application of the law. This is an important issue but it is not one I discuss in this article.

First, ask another person

Despite the seeming dominance of the written word in our society, oral culture dominates in the area of information seeking. Research has consistently found that people turn to other people as their first preference when they have an information need. This is as true of highly educated professionals as it is of the urban poor.

Scott in his study into the information needs of migrants in Australia found that government agencies, medical people and friends and acquaintances were the most important first source of information.[3] He found that printed matter was very little used as an information source on its own. Women in domestic violence situations go to friends and family most often, and then helping professionals such as their local doctor.[4] Primary care family physicians use colleagues and specialists as their primary source of medical information.[5]

These findings are not surprising when you think about it. Dealing with a person fills a variety of needs: interpersonal sources provide social support, and can handle special individual needs and questions due to their ability to give immediate feedback relevant to the situation.[6]

Asking other people leads to greater success in finding information. In a large scale study of the information needs of residents of Seattle, USA, Dervin found that being directed by others was the most successful information-seeking strategy.[7] Young people commonly report having sought legal advice as a result of advice from a third party, rather than on the basis of their general knowledge.[8]

The key implication of this research is the need to use the communications capabilities of the Internet to link people with other people. But don’t expect the delivery of information via the Internet to reduce the need for people to provide services. If anything, the Internet may increase demand for personal service provision through access to email services and increased awareness of services. It will, however, provide the opportunity for people to be better informed and to reach the service they need more quickly. Some of the communications capabilities of the Internet are:

Provide information by email: Email is an ideal way to provide the online equivalent of asking another person. Government agencies in the US are increasingly using email to answer questions from the public. The Environmental Protection Agency (USA) <http://www.> has two dozen librarians answering as many as 1500 email questions each month.

Provide advice by email: Advice is often what people look for rather than a piece of information, particularly in law. Lawmail <> is a free email advice service for young people run by the National Children’s and Youth Law Centre. Providing email advice raises a number of issues that need careful consideration, such as the ability to carry out an effective interview via email, legal liability issues, and the danger of creating an expectation for a service that cannot be met.

Provide referral directories via the Internet: Current directories will be especially useful for pointing people in the right direction and ensuring the referral merry-go round doesn’t happen. Providing access to these directories via the web opens up the possibility of reducing duplication through cross-sectoral collaboration. Providing prominent information about sources of help on Internet legal information sites will also help to guide people to sources of advice. A good example is the Immigration Advice and Rights Centre site <> with its ‘Who else can help’ button.

Establish electronic networks for community workers: This is an ideal way to reduce the isolation experienced by community sector workers in small organisations, who are often part-time. The NSW Law Foundation’s First Class Law bulletin board system < discussion/> used by the community legal sector has played an invaluable role in supporting problem solving and information sharing among staff who have common areas of interest but are geographically dispersed. In the health area, discussion groups based on particular illnesses are common. It would be worth exploring how this concept could be used for people with legal problems.

Use community agencies to deliver legal information to the public: Rather than trying to reach everyone in the community, it is possible to identify key points where people are going for help with legal problems, and to make sure they are aware of appropriate Internet resources. The Multicultural Health Communication Service markets its multilingual Internet health resources to health workers who then point their clients to these resources < mhcs/publications/> .

Convenience and ease of access

People will choose the path of least resistance in their quest for information; information is more likely to be used if it is readily accessible. Time and effort, cost, inconvenience and inadequate personal libraries were found to be barriers to physicians’ use of information sources.[9] Accessibility was the single most important determinant of resource use in a study of the information use of engineers.[10] This behaviour is related to the principle of least effort — most people, most of the time, are put off by modest hurdles.

Providing resources via the Internet has the potential to greatly increase use by increasing accessibility. There is an enormous difference between having to track down a document in a library and being able to print it out from your computer. There are indications that this is changing information-seeking behaviour. In the USA 24.8 million adults accessed the Internet to find health information in July 1999.[11]

Whether this is also true of the law is difficult to say. Reliable statistics on use of the Internet for legal inquiries are not readily available. The Legal Help pages <http://www.> provided by the Law Society of NSW had 203,000 hits in their first month. More research needs to be done on who is accessing these plain English legal sites and how people are using the material.

There are several factors which need to be in place to ensure that the Internet is a convenient information source:

• easy access to a reliable, fast Internet connection. Having one computer in a corner of the office with a slow and unreliable connection is a sure way to discourage use of the Internet as a resource.

• the ability to quickly find relevant sites. If people have too many negative experiences when looking for information, they will give up and not try again. I will discuss the issues involved in being able to locate relevant information in more detail in the next section.

• accessible sites. They need to be quick to load, easy to find, easy to navigate, and to comply with accessibility guidelines.

Will people find it?

There is evidence that a large segment of the population doesn’t have a high level of information literacy. Landauer found that:[12]

• The average (US) college-educated person cannot form a correct Boolean expression for even a simple case.

• There are typically 30 different words that users will think of to describe an information object they know well, but it will usually be indexed by less than five.

• Casual searchers often know little about a topic and its vocabulary.

There are particular problems associated with using the Internet to find Australian legal information.

I observed ten ‘ordinary’ users searching for information.[13] As it happened these ten ordinary users were all professionals and tertiary educated, but none of them understood how the Internet worked. I observed and recorded a search done by a journalist who was tertiary trained. She had been using the Internet for a year. The steps she followed are set out in the boxed section.

Search carried out by searcher with
one year’s experience
Looking for the Wallis Lake Oyster case that was before Federal Court.
Netsearch comes up as first screen
She chooses the search engine which comes up — Excite
She enters Oysters and Australia
She gets 862 hits
‘Too many’ she says, and doesn’t look at the results
She tries oysters and Australia AND federal court
She gets 182 hits
‘Very unsatisfactory’ she says
She tries Wallis lake AND oysters
She gets 52 hits
‘Looking a lot better’ she says
She finds a newspaper article but still looking for the Federal Court connection
‘I’ll look for the home page of the Federal Court and see if I can find the case that way’ she says
She tries Federal Court and Australia’
She gets 7,799,370 hits
‘That’s a lot’ she says
She goes to the Federal Government web site which comes up on this page and does a keyword search
‘Not having much luck here’. Scrolls down the page. ‘Not here’ she says
She tries the subject entry point — Departments and Agencies
‘I’ll go the Attorney Generals Department — don’t know if the Federal Court is part of it’ she says
When she goes there it brings up the Department of Admin Services
She tries again and it does the same thing
She gives up.

This search actually shows a reasonably high level of search sophistication, as one would expect from a journalist. She knew that the case was before the Federal Court, she knew to limit the search to Australia, and she knew about using Boolean operators. She even thought to try the Attorney-General’s Department. But she didn’t find what she wanted. Note that the search was carried out in July 1998, and results on the same search carried out today may vary.

Statistics show that many of the most popular search engines used by Australians are based in the United States. As a result, much of the material retrieved does not relate to Australia. For example, in October 1999 a search in Yahoo <> on ‘child custody’ retrieves 73 sites, none of which relate to Australia. Adding the word ‘Australia’ to the search brings up the movie Silent Scream — an empathic look at the Aboriginal lost generation and brutality and deaths of Aboriginals in custody. As well, a large amount of irrelevant material can be found. For example, a search on the words ‘renting bonds’ in Netscape brings up material on security bonds and bonds on hire cars.

It is essential that legal information be accurate and authoritative, but the material found on an Internet search can be of questionable quality. Many legal sites don’t provide information about who is responsible for the site or when the material was last updated.

Further, a lot of primary legal material isn’t indexed by commercial search engines. As legal problems are often one-off, users won’t have built up a knowledge of relevant legal sites.

Four strategies would address these issues:

  1. Create legal gateway sites which provide access to quality resources, and which take account of the lack of user searching skills.
  2. Promote these gateway sites to relevant intermediaries.
  3. Increase the knowledge and skill levels of intermediaries.
  4. Institute training for the general community in using the Internet to find information, starting in schools.

Internet access is increasing

Internet access is increasing rapidly. In August 1999, 41% of Australians (5.6 million adults) had accessed the Internet in the previous 12 months. This is almost double the 23% of Australians who were accessing the Internet in February 1998.[14]

Younger age groups had the greatest proportion of Internet users with 74% of 18-24 year olds accessing the Internet. There was a steady decline over the remaining age groups, down to 10% of people aged 55 years and over.

There are indications that socio-economic indicators affect Internet access. Unemployed adults are less likely to access the Internet (39%) than adults in full employment (57%). More people in capital cities access the Internet (44%) than people in rural areas (35%).

These usage statistics call for well publicised Internet access available in the community, in locations such as public libraries, court houses and community centres (1.1 million adults had accessed the Internet from either a public library or school in the 12 months to August 1999).[15]

Further, demographics should be taken into account when planning whether to deliver information and services via the Internet, for example, tenancy information may be particularly appropriate because of the higher number of tenants in younger age groups, as opposed to information about retirement village rights. Providing access through key points in the community will, however, overcome this to some extent.

Written information adds value

If asking another person is the preferred means of finding information, what is the role and value of written information? Research in this area is not definitive, but there are indications that printed information is valued and useful, especially when used in conjunction with advice.

Scott in his study of the information needs of migrants found that the maximum effectiveness of information leaflets is achieved when used by trained resource people. Sources of advice which were rated as most helpful tended to use printed matter to a significantly greater extent than those sources rated as the ‘least helpful’.[16]

A study of the usefulness of information booklets for patients leaving hospital found that among patients who had received the booklet there was an appreciable increase in the accuracy and thoroughness of patient recall of important medical details concerning their illness and its treatment.[17]

A study of the information needs of victims of domestic violence found that 30% had consulted reading material for help in answering questions.[18] Written health information is valued for the ability to refer back to it at different times, but it depends on the information being appropriate and useful. ‘The leaflet was good because I had something to keep which had everything written down’.[19] Dervin found that in resolved situations respondents were more likely to have reported that they had read something relating to the problem.[20]

Written information is also of value to those working with people with legal needs. A study into the legal aid needs of youth found that the ability of youth workers to identify their clients’ legal problems and appropriately respond to or refer such problems is dependent on worker knowledge. Of these 75% had gained their legal knowledge through legal resources books.[21]

Thus while it is useful and worthwhile to provide legal information resources via the Internet, this information will be of most use when delivered in conjunction with other forms of assistance. Providers of legal support and information need to be trained to use the Internet to assist them provide written information to supplement face to face services.

Why do people use information?

In the previous section I referred to the need for information to be appropriate and useful. Some research has been done on this but there is room for more, especially in the area of legal information.

A number of studies have pointed out that information can satisfy emotional as well as cognitive needs.[22] Information is not used only to obtain facts. Dervin found that people collect information for many reasons, including getting self-control, for social support, and for clarifying causes.[23]

The kinds of questions asked by victims of domestic violence support this finding:[24]

• What should I do?

• Why does he do this to me?

• Can I manage if I leave?

• What are my legal rights?

People are looking for stories, different viewpoints, and information.[25] A site on domestic violence, for example, might contain victim’s stories, police, legal and medical perspectives and factual information about where to get help.

An evaluation of a video giving information about adoption confirms this hypothesis.[26] When asked what they liked about the video, participants listed the following:

• listening to stories of reunion: 25.5%

• advice from those personally affected by adoption: 19.5%

• factual information: 19.5%

• outcomes of reunion: 37%

• search strategies: 20%.

The research calls for the following responses:

  1. Design sites in conjunction with users and take into account what users are looking for, not what the agency wants to tell them.
  2. Develop user-centered resources through interagency initiatives.
  3. Share and publish research into user information needs and usage.
  4. Consider including elements such as stories and different perspectives as well as factual information.
  5. Consider ways to use the technology to deliver different types of information. Stories may be more effectively delivered via video.

Comprehension of information

Information is meaningless until it is assimilated and used. The ability to do this will depend on the level of existing knowledge of the user. A trained lawyer will understand a contract much more quickly and effectively than a lay person with no experience with contracts.

This may sound like a truism but it links back to the need to deliver information in conjunction with face to face services and / or education programs, so as to allow for the development of understanding.

Comprehension is linked to readability[27] — also a truism but an important issue with the law. The provision of legislation via the Internet doesn’t make the law more accessible if it cannot be understood and acted on.

Comprehension is also linked to the level of literacy in written English. The Survey of Aspects of Literacy found that almost half of Australians aged 15-74 (6.2 million people) have ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ prose literacy skills.[28]

At the same time, one should never presume that only a trained professional is capable of understanding ‘professional’ tools. Existing knowledge is not static, and often increases dramatically with need and exposure to a situation. An extreme case is the self-litigant who ends up with great expertise in the legal issues relating to their case.

Internet resources about the law should be provided in plain English, and in languages other than English. But it should not be assumed that the provision of information will result in the comprehension and use of the information. The provision of written information in conjunction with face to face service or education programs will facilitate comprehension.

Hypertext links should be used to provide pathways from plain English to more sophisticated resources, allowing the development of expertise. This approach acknowledges the need for entry level material, and provides the option of going further if the user wants to.

The technology should be used to assist comprehension. This could include use of audio, diagrams, videos and online legal guidance. Links to a number of these tools can be found at <> .

Expert systems

Evaluation of a system providing online guidance for domestic violence shows it has been successful in achieving its aims of simplifying the process of applying for apprehended violence orders.[29] It is significant, however, that the system is designed to be used only in conjunction with some form of trained support. The evaluation found that the program was least successful in situations where this support was not readily available.

Because of the significant literacy problems in our society, we need to provide support structures for people carrying out processes such as filling in forms and writing letters. Online legal guidance systems can assist those in the support roles as well as more literate end-users.


Information does have value both as a way of increasing understanding of legal rights and responsibilities, and of fulfilling emotional needs; the Internet does have a role to play in delivering this information to a wide audience.

At the same time this is only one cog in the complex process of dealing with a legal problem. It is important to guard against the ‘magic bullet’ approach, as exemplified in this prediction: ‘Legal services kiosks could assist millions of additional clients at very low cost by channeling routine, repetitive cases to self-help kiosks’.[30]

Information is a step along the way, not a product. People want their problem solved, they do not want a piece of information.[31] It is not enough to simply provide web sites with legal information on them, no matter how well the information is packaged. Information is only of value if it is found, used and understood. Careful consideration needs to be given to how this can most effectively be achieved.

In the short term at least, the key to successfully delivering legal information and services via the Internet is to use it as an adjunct to personal support from, say, community agencies, lawyers, or health professionals. For this to be successfully achieved, those providing the support must be adequately resourced, and have access to the Internet and the ability to use it effectively. Technology must be used to enhance social information networks rather than replace them.

This article has assessed the implications for the delivery of legal information and advice via the Internet drawing on research into how people find and use information. There are, however, no definitive answers. The Internet is a new and constantly changing medium, and there is a need for ongoing monitoring and research in this area. I welcome discussion, disagreement, and alternative realities.


[*] Sue Scott is Director of the Online Legal Access Project at the law Foundation of NSW.

[1] Australian Law Reform Commission 1992, Multiculturalism and the Law, Sydney, 1992.

[2] Women’s Legal Resources Centre, ‘Quarter Way to Equal: A Report on Barriers to Access to Legal Services for Migrant Women’, Law Foundation of NSW, 1994.

[3] Scott, W., ‘Survey into the Information Needs of Migrants in Australia: Final Report’, AGPS, 1980.

[4] Keys Young, ‘Against the Odds: How Women Survive Domestic Violence, The needs of women experiencing domestic violence who do not use domestic violence and related crisis services’, Federal Office of the Status of Women, 1998.

[5] Gruppen, L. and others, ‘Information Seeking Strategies and Differences among Primary Care Physicians’, (1987) 7(3) Mobius 18-26.

[6] Schramm, W., Men, Messages and Media, Harper and Rowe, 1973.

[7] Dervin, B., The Development of Strategies for Dealing with Information Needs of Urban Residents, ED 125-640, Washington University, Seattle, 1977.

[8] O’Connor, I. and Tilbury, C., Legal Aid Needs of Youth, Legal Aid Branch, Attorney-General’s Department, AGPS, Sydney, 1986.

[9] Huth, E., ‘The Underused Medical Literature’, (1989) 110(2) Annals of Internal Medicine 99-100.

[10] Gerstberger, P. and Allen, T., ‘Criteria used by Research and Development Engineers in the Selection of an Information Source’, (1968) 52 Journal of Applied Psychology 272-9.

[11] Cyber Dialog, Cyber Dialogue Reports that Doctors Are Missing Internet Health Opportunity, Press release, 12 October 1999 <> last accessed 20 January 2000.

[12] Landauer, T. and others, ‘Enhancing the Usability of Text through Computer Delivery and Formative Evaluation: the SuperBook Project’, in C. McKnight, A. Dillon and J. Richardson (eds), Hypertext: a Psychological Perspective, Ellis Horwood, New York, 1993, pp.71-136.

[13] Scott, S., Destination Information: Using the Internet as an Information Resource, unpublished, 1998, available from email:

[14] Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), Use of Internet by Householders, Australia, August 1999, Catalogue No. 8147.0, Sydney, 1999.

[15] ABS above, ref. 14.

[16] Scott, W., above, ref. 3.

[17] Sandler, D. and others, ‘Is an Information Booklet for Patients Leaving Hospital Helpful and Useful?’, (1989) British Medical Journal 298 at 870-4.

[18] Harris, R.M, ‘The Information Needs of Battered Women’, (1988) 28(1) RQ 62-70.

[19] Buckland, S., Unmet Needs for Health Information, Help for Health Trust, Winchester, 1995.

[20] Dervin, B, above, ref. 7.

[21] O’Connor, I. and Tilbury, C., above.

[22] Wilson, T., ‘Information Needs and Uses: Fifty Years of Progress?’, (1994) Journal of Documentation 15-51.

[23] Dervin, B., ‘An Overview of Sense-Making Research: Concepts, Methods and Results to Date’, paper presented at the International Communications Assn Meeting, Dallas, 1993 < <http://edfu.lis.uiuc. edu/allerton/96/wl/Dervin83a.html> > last accessed 20 January 2000.

[24] Harris, R.M, above, ref. 18.

[25] Dervin, B., above, ref. 23.

[26] Law Foundation of NSW, Post Adoption Resource Centre: Survey on the Path Ahead, video, ‘Grants evaluation report 2nd Quarter 1998/99’, Law Foundation of NSW, 1999.

[27] Kintsch, W., Text Comprehension, Memory, and Learning. (1994) 49 American Psychologist 294-303.

[28] Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Aspects of Literacy: Assessed Skill Levels, Australia, 1996’, Catalogue No. 4228.0, 1996.

[29] National Center for State Courts, Internet-based Domestic Violence Court Preparation System Evaluation, unpublished, 1998. For more information about this project contact Richard Zorza or Joyce Klemperer, 121 Sixth Ave, New York, NY 10013, tel 212-925-6675, fax 212-925-5675, e-mail: or

[30] US Office of Inspector General Legal Services Corporation, ‘Increasing Legal Services Delivery Capacity through Information Technology’, 1996 <> .

[31] Dervin, B., above, ref. 7.

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