The Legal Access Challenge: a judicial assessment

The winners have been announced of the government-funded Legal Access Challenge run by NESTA (once the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) and the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA). With more money forthcoming during the process, eight, rather than the originally conceived four, bids were successful and revealed a wide range of different approaches.

I should disclose that I was a judge and also helped organise an international webinar on AI for NESTA and the SRA. The challenge, when first announced, raised a degree of scepticism. Some queried why government funding for innovation should be channelled through a regulator; others the extent to which the challenge initially seemed to assume that the deployment of AI was much more advanced in the sector than it actually is; there was muttering about the relatively small sums on offer (£50,000 for what turned out to be the top eight and another £50,000 for top two next summer); and a gripe about the split of the funding between what was awarded and what was taken up by administration. 

All I say – labouring with the interests as disclosed – is that there were no less than 117 applicants – suggesting that the offer was attractive; the winners look an interesting bunch; and that personally I am a financially clean skin: I didn’t receive a penny for my efforts. I throw in my observation that the background organisation seemed to me impeccable, fair and scrupulous. Debate on precise scoring to justify decisions proceeded well beyond the point where personally I might have been tempted to yield to an unworthy ‘Yeah. Whatever.’

This kind of challenge operation goes by a number of names and in some ways is very similar to the US Legal Services Corporation’s Technical Initiative Grants programme – though I can vouch for the English scheme being decided on the merits of the applications alone – not a need to spread the money around different constituencies. The winners were scored individually without consideration of their collective impact but the coverage is revealing. Two of the eight come from the not for profit sector:  Mencap and the Royal Courts of Justice Citizens Advice service. Both have an established track record in using technology. Mencap’s UnderstandMe is already hosted on its website. She opens up for discussion with ‘Great! So, I’m Aeren, 28, live in Barnet [an area in North London]. I was born with a learning disability, it’s a rare condition – the short version is that it’s a chromosome abnormality. Other than that, I’m just like anyone else. But let’s get started, what do you think a learning disability is?’ It will be interesting to see how fare the chatbot form can be developed. The RCJ Citizens Advice service has operated its CourtNav programme, developed with commercial firm Freshfields, for some time. It helps users through a divorce petition.

Family work is a prime target for technology in England and  Wales because legal aid has been largely withdrawn from routine cases and the need for assistance for self-represented litigants is enormous. The RCJ Citizens Advice Service is looking to develop a programme linked to CourtNav and other services it has developed to deal with domestic abuse. Formily is designed to help users complete the important Form E (geddit? (I think)) relating to financial disclosure in family proceedings.

There were a number of niche products serving distinct markets – which makes sense in terms of the limited funning available. Glow is a product designed to bring together people who might benefit from a group litigation order. Mydigitalrights brings together doteveryone , which campaigns for responsible technology, and resolver, the established online resolution product. Takenote by Organise is an app for recording harassment in the workplace and acting upon it. Resolvedisputesonline hopes to do what it says on the tin for consumers and SMEs. Solomonic says that its litigation friend tool will allow AI assisted searches of employment cases.

There are two ways in which the success of this venture can be judged. First, how many of the selected products survive and thrive. I would have thought that the process would be approaching venture capitalist levels of success if one big winner emerges and, say, two or three other products survive. The attrition rate in the commercial sector is pretty brutal – it is not likely to be different in A2J. Second is the less definable judgement about whether the challenge stimulates the market more generally. We shall see. We will get some idea of how the eight finalists are doing as we move to next summer’s bids for the prize of further backing. We will also know what other initiatives have advanced.

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