Challenging Times

Two recent developments in London are significant both domestically and internationally. The first was the formal launch of the ‘Legal Access Challenge” by NESTA, once the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. This is part of the £700,000 ($882,000) project overseen by the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The other is the creation of an £5m ($6.3m) ‘innovation fund’ by the Ministry of Justice as part of its response to a review of the legal aid cuts.

The two challenges are very close to each other: NESTA wants to reward ‘innovative solutions which appropriately support people through the stages of 

  • Diagnosing their issue and whether it is a legal problem, understanding their rights, and understanding the options to resolve a problem; and/or
  • Resolving the problem, for example resolving a dispute or generating legal documents, including where appropriate accessing the services of a legal professional…’

For this, it has on offer a maximum of an initial grant of £50,000 plus another £50,000 for the winner. 

For its part, the MoJ expresses the intention of its fund with a certain reluctance to be pinned down on detail. ‘Amongst other things, we may want to explore:

  • new ways in which legal support and advice can be delivered remotely through digital means;
  • ways in which questions about a legal problem, and legal support itself, can be broken down; as well as
  • ways in which legal support can be delivered to litigants in person before, during and after their time at a court or tribunal.’

Last Thursday, NESTA opened its bidding period with an event at its swanky headquarters on the Victoria Embankment. BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman opened discussion by inviting debate on three undoubtedly key questions:

  • how far can technology go to make justice accessible;
  • what barriers hold back innovation; and
  • who should play what part in bringing forward a new range of solutions?

Discussion began with contributions from CrowdJustice’s Julia Salasky, Thoughtriver’s Tim Pullan, Nicky Leitjens from the Netherlands and Julie Bishop from the Law Centres Network. They gave disparate views on the issue of technology and access to justice. And coherence in the ensuing discussion was somewhat thrown by the first question from the floor. Why, asked the contributer, had law not put paid to war? And, truth to tell, the debate never reflected answers that were as clear as Mr Coleman’s questions.

Nevertheless, the debate invited reflection on the principles which might underlie challenge exercises of this kind where a relatively small amount of money (even the Ministry’s millions which will, no doubt, be spread about in smaller pots) might be most profitably spent. A major problem for the access to justice sector is that systems designed for use by those at or near state benefit levels of income will not attract the same level of interest as those for commercial interests. So, some form of external kickstarting is required.

My (probably somewhat idiosyncratic) list of issues in funding exercises of this kind that were raised (or, at least, hinted at) included:

  1. it is worth looking at how commercially developed products might be used by individuals. This might be known as ‘maximising the trickle down effect’;
  2. maximum collaboration by organisations in the access to justice sector is absolutely crucial given the overall lack of resources;
  3. existing resources need to be built upon and not reinvented. For example, the UK has an excellent base level digital information resource (as the US does not) in the Citizens Advice websites. We should seek to build on this, not ignore it.
  4. one off funding of this kind has to lead to sustainable projects which do not die when the money runs out. 
  5. projects need to be open source and capable of being fitted in with others.

There are other issues. One which was not raised at the NESTA meeting but is relevant to participation by a legal regulator is how innovation may be encouraged but some form of quality assurance maintained. And the Ministry of Justice has to figure out how, having abolished the Legal Services Commission, it can find a structure which allows it to play a leading role in developing access to justice other than through conventional legal aid.  So, answers arise in these two challenges which go some way beyond Mr Coleman’s opening questions.

The UK will not be the only jurisdiction where issues arise about how to spend relatively limited amounts of money on access to justice with maximum effect. Ever hoping to be helpful, these are my top ten general lessons  for legal aid administrators the world over faced with the political gift of a pot of money without a clear mandate. They were  developed for a forthcoming conference of the International Legal Aid Group in Ottawa:

  1. Technology provides no one magic bullet. Look for a range of incremental improvements. 
  2. Technology can supplement, but not substitute for, people. See it as a way of getting more bang for your buck not make savings.
  3. Digital exclusion, privacy concerns and public scepticism about ODR and online legal services are real. You have to accommodate them.
  4. Jurisdictions benefit from a lead body on A2j and technology. 
  5. Avoid over-seduction by artificial intelligencer.
  6. Technology is International. Embrace that. Evaluate your efforts globally – national comparison is no longer sufficient. Find a mechanism for sharing developments. 
  7. Don’t make gestures with non strategic wads of cash – particularly not as some sort of palliative for cutting mainline services.
  8. Develop the interactive.
  9. Get the basics of providers’ office management and business performance working.
  10. Foster an entrepreneurial culture among providers. 

Crack that lot in a challenge fund and general policy and we will have some progress.

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