Crossing Ponds: Pushing Frontiers

The theme of international collaboration, opened up by LSC President Jim Sandman yesterday, continued in a session at the Corporation’s conference this morning. This was led by Australia’s Justice Connect (whose Brendan Lacota was physically present with Kate Fazio attending by video), Dave Nolette of British Columbia’s Justice Education Society (JES) and myself.

All three of the speakers were able to instance the role played by the LSC conferences on technology. Dave Nolette had presented his Families Change programme jointly with the California Courts in 2014. Kate Fazio reported her inspiration in attending from 2016 onward which had led to a successful pitch to Google for funds to technology projects. The Dutch Rechtwijzer had been discussed in a plenary session on international developments in 2015. One of the strengths of the conference, ignoring any consideration of the international, is that is necessarily multi-jurisdictional. And, for example, two of the sessions that I attended today covered virtual delivery in very rural areas (which incorporated the experience of Ohio, Oregon and Colorado and was very positive where properly curated) and the integration of AI and triage (which brought in the experience of Illinois, Massachusetts and Maine). That makes its content wider than any English single-jurisdiction conference and might make it a shorter step to incorporating the international.

There have, in any event, been international currents in legal aid since the modern scheme was established in the UK after the Second World War. A number of other jurisdictions followed suit – though none of them so wholeheartedly. The next wave of development happened in the 1960s and 70s in the US and led to the creation of the UK’s law centres in imitation and to the idea of using a test case litigation strategy – both expressly borrowed from the US. Links between academics and administrators, often through the International Legal Aid Group, led to the widespread copying of ideas such as quality assurance and needs surveys. For the UK and other European countries, the advance of a human rights jurisdiction under the European Convention on Human Rights – where many domestic cases have been legally aided – has been another route to internationalisation (much to the annoyance of UK governments of all stripes and perhaps unlikely to survive the little Englander approach so much currently in fashion).

Even without these cultural currents pushing greater links, the disparity in investment between legal tech (running at more than £1bn annually) and tech specifically for the access to justice sector demands that we make the best use of what relatively little we have. There are definitional issues here but the LSC has a competitive grant programme for $4m: the UK government legal challenge was funded to the tune of £500,000. It is unlikely that the total spend on exclusively customer-facing A2JTech amounts to more than, say, $50m tops. 

That level of disparity points to why the sector has to maximise experience anywhere in the world. We cannot afford not to do so. That raises the organisational issue of how that might be done – which was at the core of Jim Sandman’s speech. It also raises the equally taxing question of the philosophical way in which technology might be classified and compared. 

There has been some discussion of this taxonomy issue both previously in this blog and, more recently, on twitter. I have a proposal which is based on the general divisions used by Stanford University’s LegalTech Index. Skipping the workings out, the result is the following suggestion:

  1. Marketplace and Matches (eg LegalZoom)
  2. Document Automation (a major area)
  3. Practice Management (the biggest single area of impact where such products as case management software are developed in a commercial context are also deployed in not for profit or low profit organisations)
  4. Legal Research and Analytics
  5. Online Dispute Resolution
  6. Online User Guidance.

A test for this categorisation is whether it will work for all products or whether the attempt to apply them will prompt amendment. One approach would be to accept them provisionally and ask a consequent question. ‘OK, then. What products are the best in class?’. This is really hard and it demands a definition of ‘best’ let alone ‘class’. But just take number six, online user guidance, as an example. The broad category has to be broken down and I, who am old enough to know that this process is nothing but a hostage to fortune, would suggest:

a. best ‘static information’ site – (England and Wales);

b. best interactive information – Rechtwizjer (the Netherlands – defunct);

c. best extant guided pathway site: MyLawBC (Canada);

d. best interactive chatbot: Nadia (Australia – defunct);

e. best integrated digital and individual advice and information: FLOWS (UK).

You might, as a reader, want to take issue with the categorisation – both overall and in particular. I hope you do. We will benefit from public debate. But this exercise illustrates two things. First, if you want to find the best, you have to wander over a number of different continents and explore a number of different countries. And, secondly, the process of tying yourself down to deciding which is best (however tricky that might be) helps to add precision to thinking.

These attempts at taking forward some of the implications of the LSC’s President’s speech may ultimately be found wanting and need amendment. I am sure they will. That does not matter. What he has highlighted is the value of the process of seeking to get a handle on global developments in access to justice when much experiment and funding is diverse and dissipated.


And, I add as a bonus, two tweets from conference attendees that made me laugh: ‘Roger Smith has been doing legal aid since the dinosaurs but he’s no fossil’ (you can chip that into my gravestone) and ‘is always a delight to listen to and the only one I know who can use “higgledy piggledy” with perfect aplomb’. Yeah: the result of a good education.

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