Access to Justice, Technology and Lists

Personally, I am a great fan of lists. They force you to discriminate and define. They impose order on chaos. And so seductive are they that, to be honest, after near on half a century as a lawyer, I find it hard not to articulate an argument in the related phenomenon of numbered paragraphs. So, I think it helpful that Nesta (see previous post) has summarised its background research to its forthcoming Legal Access Challenge largely by way of two particular lists – one of areas where technology can assist consumers and the other of the ‘some of the emerging technology solutions which could enable improvements in the provision of accessible, affordable legal help’.

This is the list of areas where technology can support users in obtaining better access to justice: ‘For customers, technology can support with [these eight areas]:

  • Communication Using digital interfaces to make access to legal help near instant and easier to comprehend, for example by using everyday language
  • Self-diagnosis Supporting evaluation of problems by identifying whether problems have a legal recourse and helping customers to understand their rights and the options available to resolve the problem
  • Triage Guiding people to sources of support within the legal system, such as automated tools, local advice providers, solicitors and the court system
  • Self-help or guidance Helping to navigate the chosen process and facilitating the preparation of evidence and legal documentation
  • Empowerment Users may be able to choose which elements of their legal journey can be self-managed and which need to be addressed by a legal professional
  • Affordability Reducing legal labour time through automation and supporting increasing access to justice by reducing the financial barriers involved
  • Transparency Helping to demystify the legal process and improve the flow of information, for example by staying up to date with the progress of a case
  • Efficiency Reducing transaction and response time, supporting addressing legal problems at the earliest opportunity and preventing unnecessary costs and/or detrimental impact on people’s wellbeing’

I would probably argue that ‘Resolution’ should be specifically included in this list to incorporate developments like the Rechtwijzer or other ODR-orientate products. But, otherwise, it seems a helpful taxonomy and you could argue anyway that Resolution is covered by ‘empowerment’.

Nesta then identifies some of the most important emerging technology solutions. Its caveat should be noted ‘There is a plethora of other types of technologies that both lawyers and consumers use today such as static websites, live chat functionality, e-learning, project management tools, etc. Although we will see increased use of these widely known digital solutions going forward, we do not consider these applications as part of the emerging technologies specific to the better provision of legal support.’ With this in mind, ‘Some of the emerging technology solutions which could enable improvements in the provision of accessible, affordable legal help include:

  • Guided pathways Tools that guide users through a decision tree by asking users a series of questions and offering pre-defined outcomes based on specific responses
  • Automated document assembly Document assembly tools automate the creation of legal documents or completion of court forms based on relevant information
  • Online dispute resolution (ODR) Online tools that allow for resolving consumer or civil law disputes without escalating to the courts
  • Artificial intelligence (AI) AI is an umbrella term for a variety of digital systems including machine learning and big data approaches to train and optimise their performance at tasks normally requiring human intelligence. In a legal context, it involves problem-solving capacity including data extraction, complex decision making, or operational planning. Some of the most widely used applications include:
  • Expert systems Expert systems in the legal domain use rule or knowledge-based approaches and an inference engine to provide the user with expert knowledge on specific subjects
  • Natural language processing (NLP) A group of AI applications for sophisticated manipulation of text, understanding language (like speech recognition) and generation of language (like text-to-speech)
  • Chatbots The top layer of another application (such as guided pathways or automated document assembly) that mimics human interaction and provides an interface between the customer and the rest of the application. The sophistication of chatbots varies
  • Information and entity extraction A technique for automatically extracting information from documents and classifying relevant information into pre-defined categories (like customer details, time and monetary values, etc.)’

I would have only minor comments. First, you might think of grouping developments under a smaller number of headings – for example, as the text makes clear chatbots and guided pathways are integrally linked; AI could sweep up Natural Language Processing. Second, if you were focussing globally rather on a domestic challenge as Nesta was,  you would probably include a category on Referral systems like Australia’s JusticeConnect, Illinois Legal Aid Online’s OTIS (online triage and intake system) and the Legal Services Corporation’s Legal Navigator. And, third, there is the whole area of what might be called ‘information retention’ exampled by Project Callisto or Justfix,nyc where technology is used to store examples of issues that are to be taken up. One might also want to note the operation of price/service comparison (like The Law Superstore) or sites that included forums (like Mumsnet or Wikivorce).

It is quite instructive to compare Nesta’s lists with that produced last December by the doyen of US commentators, Bob Ambrogi, on the top 20 most important legal technology developments of 2018. This has a rather different focus and, despite its recognition of global developments, it is a bit US-centric; but it does emphasise the commercial weight behind change. His headlines look a little cryptic without the surrounding text but you can get that by reading the post – which is well worth doing. His top 20 developments for 2018 were as follows:

1. Analytics become essential.

… if you judge the most important technology by its direct impact on the practice of law, then it would have to be analytics.’

2. Legal tech goes global.

3. Legal research gets smarter and more comprehensive.

4. Investment hits $1 billion.

5. Acquisitions accumulate.

6. Practice management market corrects.

7. Ethics reform sticks its nose under the tent.

8. The end of Avvo (a US lawyer comparison site).

9. The cloud no longer looms ominous.

10. Law gets liberated (relates to state copyright) 

11. Tech competence gets real.

12. AI gets an MBA.

13. Startups continue to proliferate.

14. Legal podcasts multiply.

15. Legal tech gets platformized (relates to developments to client management software)

16. Blockchain builds buzz..

17. C-suites see shake-ups (change among the leadership of important companies)

18. Alternative Legal Service Providers no longer ‘alternative.’

19. A2J gets a lifeline.

This is a reference to the engagement of a major foundation – The Pew Charitable Trusts – in the area.

20. Legal news becomes the news.

So, long live lists as a way of giving the reader an offer of an oversight into developments that, otherwise, might appear all too diverse and disparate. And particularly perhaps if you disagree with them because they help sharpen your thinking.

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