Goodbye, Rechtwijzer: hello, Justice42

The Dutch Rechtwijzer, the poster child of the internet revolution in legal advice and online dispute resolution, has proved financially unsustainable. The three-year collaboration between the Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law (HIIL), the Dutch Legal Aid Board and the US firm Modria will be dissolved by July. From the ashes will arise Justice42 (I guess ‘Justice for two’ geddit?). This will take some of the HiiL team behind the Rechtwijzer, led by Laura Kistemaker who was the chief operating officer for the project. Justice42 will shed the global ambitions of the Rechtwijzer and focus primarily on the Dutch divorce market. It is building a new platform with a new commercial Dutch IT partner – seeking to incorporate the lessons from the Rechtwijzer. Launch is hoped for September. The Dutch Legal Aid Board will cease to be a partner in the venture though it is hoped that legal aid funding will be available for users where eligible and it will encourage access to the new product.

The fate of the Rechtwijzer has been in doubt for some time. Key members of the HiiL team have dispersed over the last year and its annual report noted:

On the less positive side, we have had to decide to stop with the online dispute resolution platform Rechtwijzer in its current form. The platform has received acclaim in over 60 national and international media outlets, including The Economist. Innovative as it is, we have not been able to make it financially viable in the way we had hoped. We learned that getting to a mutually reinforcing partnership with the traditional justice institutions to scale up a platform like Rechtwijzer is difficult. So we decided to run it as a separate legal entity, with separate management, and funded separately from HiiL through social impact investors. The expertise and knowledge that we built up around designing innovative procedures will remain within HiiL and be developed as a product going into 2017.

The Rechtwijzer came in two versions: 1.0 and 2.0. These represented the two elements in which it was innovative. The first led the world in the use of guided pathways that promised the transfiguration of advice provision on the net. Instead of static ‘wallpaper’, the user was given an interactive experience that led to information specifically tailored to their needs. This allowed the dynamic provision of advice and tailored referral. The word ‘Rechtwijzer’ means signpost. Version 2.0 was far more ambitious and sought to build online dispute resolution into the package. Ambitiously, it was hoped that this could become self-financing as users paid for elements like online mediation. This is what has proved a bridge too far.

The Rechtwijzer generated a major amount of coverage around the world for both elements of its innovation. HilL led a drive to sell its package in other jurisdictions. In England and Wales, Relate (formerly the National Marriage Guidance Council) initially sought to develop a version including online mediation but then subsequently halted its development (on which we hope to have a contribution next week). In British Columbia, the Legal Services Society used its interactive possibilities for advice in its MyLawBC programme. However, wider sales were not forthcoming in sufficient numbers to generate the kind of income for which HiiL had hoped.

As might be expected, the new team are bullish about their prospects.  Laura Kistemaker said:

After two years of experience with people organising their divorce through Rechtwijzer we have an amazing proof of concept. We learned so much about what users liked about it and what they wanted to see changed. We had lawyers getting used to work with it, we could show government that it worked for people. Now we will take these insights and consolidate it into a new platform that will continue to be improved based on user feedback. Our focus will be to set up a social enterprise that can deliver services independently of government funding. We hope to become the platform people will turn to in difficult times of separation. And we will work hard to offer them the structure, control and expertise help they need to make a good separation plan and finalise their divorce.

The Dutch Legal Aid Board remains well disposed to its wayward child and it looks as if it will assist in  through help on guided pathways on Rechtwijzer and feeding in the experiences of its national network of legal counters, the Juridisch Loket, and its other front line legal services – whose role will be strengthened under new legislation proceeding through the Dutch legislative process.

So, for the Netherlands, the project will continue and we will see what happens.

The rest of the world has to digest the lessons. Some will, no doubt, say that this proves the foolishness of seeking digital solutions. They are too expensive for governments to fund and public funders cannot be as agile as private ones. Users, at this point, are wary of funding digital solutions to their problems out of their own money. On the other hand, it is not always the early adopters of new technologies that win out in the end. Skype was not the first video communication programme to run on the net: just one of the most successful. HilL was forced to be self-financing and there was dwindling public subsidy for this project precisely at the point where it became most ambitious in its move from version 1.0 to 2.0. It may be little short-term consolation but those behind the Rechtwijzer are likely, in the long term, to see the vindication of both of their innovations – interactive advice and its integration with online dispute resolution. You can already see other developments that will begin to share the global leadership in the transformation necessary for advice to adapt to the possibilities of the internet. It is clear that chatbots will develop to be able to handle more sophisticated information and advice in what could become very exciting developments. Down in Australia, there is the fascinating deployment of artificial intelligence to leverage Cate Blanchett’s contribution to an interactive introduction to a new disability insurance scheme.

And we still have and, indeed, the BC Conflict Resolution Tribunal’s Solution Explorer as world-leading examples of the possibilities of interactive advice whose approach is based, directly or indirectly, on the Rechtwijzer experience.