At least four of the recently announced beneficiaries of the latest round of the LexisNexis Tech Accelerator programme could legitimately argue that they are addressing access to justice issues. They cover the translation of natural language questions into more clearly defined legal issues for referral (Civvis); self-help litigation (Courtroom5); the reporting of sexual harassment (JDoe); and ‘estate settlement’ (Tusk). That is an interesting development and it is worth examining these projects.
These four are among nine members of the current cohort of the legal tech accelerator: ‘Over a period of 10 weeks, participants will receive mentoring and guidance throughout the program, which is based in the Menlo Park, CA offices of Lex Machina and at the Raleigh Technology Center for LexisNexis on the Centennial Campus of North Carolina State University.’
The first point is that the list confirms that the not for profit sector in countries like the US, UK, Australia and Canada has got hold of the right issues. Translation between legal and natural language is a concern of at least two major projects on either side of the Atlantic. It is the aim of the ‘learned hands’ approach from Stanford and Suffolk Universities. It is the subject in the United Kingdom of Legal Utopia – ‘We’ve been busy over the last 12-months exploring the issues and disputes consumers find themselves in up and down the country.’ The Legal Services Corporation’s Legal Navigator pilots in Alaska and Hawaii should soon show us how such natural language programming can be integrated with reply and referral.
Self-represented litigants present a major challenge in most jurisdictions. There are well established networks and organisations available with various types of assistance, largely given for free. In the US, these efforts are assisted by the Self Represented Litigants Network and, in the UK, the Litigants in Person Network. Courtroom5 joins a range of for profit provision’: the need is evident.
Sexual harassment has become a major issue in recent years, as manifested by the MeToo movement. A leader in the use of technology has been the not for profit Project Callisto which addresses the issue specifically on campus universities: ‘Callisto Campus provides survivors with trauma-informed options for reporting sexual assault and is now in place across 13 partner institutions. Callisto Expansion addresses sexual assault and sexual coercion in professional industries.’ It allows encrypted reporting of sexual harassment with automated matching and intervention by counsellors if a repeat perpetrator is revealed. It seems very much to be the model for JDoe except that the aim is to put users in touch with lawyers. These projects have not only allowed the development of a relatively newly perceived area of legal need, they are also using digital media’s capacity for recording in a new way.
As for probate, it is a nightmare in most countries with lawyers charging considerable fees or users lost in the detail. I can speak with a bit of personal venom on this after my father’s solicitor had to agree to surrender half of her exorbitant bill for incompetently winding up his estate. Any assistance would be helpful but traditionally the not for profit sector has not been involved. Few, however, would dispute the need.
Second, the applicants are all commercial. Behind most of them are financial backers hoping to make serious money. And, of course, the Holy Grail of any tech project even in the not for profit sector is sustainability. How will the project continue after the grant runs out? That is the question put in various ways in each grant application. Well, here we have traditional fees (but lower than lawyers); subscription (Courtroom5 costs you $24.95 a month) and third party subsidy: CNET reported ‘Both [sexual harassment] apps are free for people to use, with JDoe getting most of its funding from lawyers who pay $1,000 per year to sign up and take on cases through the service. Callisto is built specifically for each school or company that buys its service, costing between $10,000 and $30,000 according to NPR.’
Finally, there is really important point of what the not for profit and profit sector might learn from each other and how they might interface in an area where demand will always outstrip supply. Many of the commercial offerings have a level of design which could beneficially be copied by a not for profit sector that has traditionally upheld substance over style: modern user sensibilities need more attention to presentation. Subscription models might offer a way forward for not for profits willing, like Callisto, to mix it with the commercial world. And, some of these projects raise a question about the monetisation of what has historically been free (such as help for self-represented litigants), an aspect of the wider ‘do we want to sleep with google?’. We need more discussion of the complexities of that.
Anyway, good to see a tech incubator going beyond the encouragement of contract review and assembly, document review, e-discovery and the other usual areas of the application of technology in the commercial field.