Technology and access to justice: top ten tips for funders and grantees

It began with a lunch. ‘Rog,’ said my companion. ‘You have been around the block on technology and access to justice a few times. You have worked for funders. You have made your fair share of grant applications. You know the field. Tell funders what they should be looking for and applicants what they should pitching.’ So, having got back home and poured another glass of a rather good crisp white wine, here are my top ten tips. If you don’t like the conversational style then pretty much the same content is deducible from a more conventionally constructed paper on provision in family cases covering the same ground.

Priorities

First, there must be what in litigation might be called ‘a theory of the case’ or at least of the context. An applicant must show how their bid fits into the context of past developments and future possibilities. My analysis is that we are in a time of the aggregation of marginal gains which I am happy to argue against all comers. Debate will lead only to improvement. These are the current frontiers:

  1. The interactive possibilities of the Internet;
  2. More accessible provision of information;
  3. Hybrid services that can mix and match individualised and automated provision.
  4. Assistance to users with automated case management.
  5. Ways in which the digital divide might become more of a digital gradient.
  6. Ways in which business processes can be improved to reduce unit cost.

All of these are important, The one with the most exciting possibilities seems to me the fourth – the development of passive assistance with unbundled cases towards actively assisting users with the management of their case. And, in all of these priorities, there has to be a capacity to assist those who can’t use the internet for a variety of reasons with individualised help of proven assistance.

Context

Second, new bids should fit in these categories or fail or, at the very least, argue their case for another stream of development. Grantees need to show – particularly at this delicate moment where funds are short and needs are long – how their project stands on the shoulders of those who went before and, in turn, will offer a step up to those who follow. And we are talking internationally not just within one jurisdiction. All round the world, there are too many ‘one offs’ that go nowhere. 

Best in class – and in the world

Third, reject any bid which does not identify anything comparable in at least the jurisdictions of the U.K, US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. For the English, a reference to Scotland will be a good marker of whether the applicant has done adequate research. Too much is too parochial and your target as a funder with strategic aspirations should be only to fund something which, in horticultural competition terms, is ‘best in class’. Grantees, this is the bar you have to meet.

Artificial Intelligence: approach with care

Fourth, operate on the basis that any project claiming breakthrough advance in the use of AI in access to justice raises a red flag. A lot of claims are made for AI which amount to little more than faking it until you can (or because you can’t) make it. Nothing wrong with a bit of automation, say in the matching of users with providers or people with problems. Just don’t let anyone claim that some giant application of AI is going to revolutionise provision and allow wholesale replacement of individual assistance. The best use of IBM Watson that I have seen manipulates cost data so that a family lawyer can more safely set an advance fee. That is incredibly helpful and extremely limited. And, let me admit, I was one who was seduced by the Nadia Australian chatbot. Read up on it and learn from the classic errors of a susceptible  man of a certain age. AI may be useful in the future. Although a little tarnished from a few years ago, it is still trendy. All I say is ‘Wait’.

Standards

Fifth, rigorously distinguish between projects which can be justified as a proof of concept and those intended for mainstream application. The former can be a bit homespun and cranky. But, if you are seriously intending major service delivery, your standards have to be set at commercial levels. As examples, look at all the array second rate chatbots and low level interactive document self assembly. Wastes of money. If a mainstream service, provided as it might be by a hard pressed NGO, cannot reach the standards set by the market then forget it. Users expect a certain standard of design and functionality. They will reject anything too far away from what they are familiar with elsewhere on the net.

It’s the content, stupid

Six, technology does not alter content. There, the Ro-Ro principle still applies. Rubbish in: Rubbish out. So a whizzy interaction self completing document is useless if the content is hopeless. You would be surprised to know how easy it is for even well intentioned grantees to be seduced by process not content. As an observer, it can drive you nuts. There is a whole field of user design to tell you how language should be used and systems designed. Simply taking an existing static letter and making its completion automatic is no longer enough. The transformation available from technology comes in two parts: the interactivity and other technological possibilities; and, crucially, the opportunity to revolutionise content so that the automatic can more closely approach the individual. So, a self-generated letter or claim should be indistinguishable from the best draft of an experienced practitioner. 

User design and engagement

Seven, you are looking for user tested and oriented design. This has to be built in and you have to fund necessary experiment and adaption. Linked to this is the requirement that any project is unlikely to be operable on a fire and forget basis. If the applicant does not add 10 per cent to the budget and six months to the time scale for fiddling with an initially completed project then approach with care. It ain’t how Google or the other big tech companies work.

Focus

Eight, and this follows, you should probably fund less with more. Any funder needs to spread the goodies out a bit. Even the Technical Initiative Grants of the US Legal Services Corporation, allegedly guided by sacred principles democratically decided at national fora, are manifestly spread around for political reasons of geography and politics. Tempting for all funders. Maybe unavoidable if you are getting state funds. Make a small number of big bets, proclaim your commitment to international standards of excellence. And publicly put yourselves on the line so that any problem is yours as well as the grantee.

Comparison and research

Nine, make sure you are up to date with what research is available. There is a lot of work around the world on trying to open up court data. There are creditable attempts to map legal need on pretty well agree principles. It is easy to find out what funders are backing: they usually produce a list of grants. Begin with the Legal Services Corporation. Its list of 2021 grants is available here. Get an  intern to give an afternoon to comparison with your comparable list. And, if you are a putative grantee, then construct your application by reference to what the interesting funders like the LSC, Victoria Law Foundation, the Legal Education Foundation are doing. (names provided only as examples). Of course, you might feel corporately that technology ain’t going nowhere fast in the access to justice sector. So, priority should go elsewhere eg to multi-disciplinary provision like medico-legal partnerships or various community developments projects. These approaches  are not be exclusive. And remember that meanwhile technology is transforming courts, tribunals and your user group’s lives generally. During Covid, it kept the access to justice sector, as the economy more generally, alive. And, just remember. The courts wait for no-one: they are introducing technology as fast as they can. We need to backfill at an earlier stage of a problem. 

You are not alone

And ten, finally, for Heaven’s sake, get together and learn with each other. All round the world, statutory and non-statutory funders are facing the same issues in every US and Australian state, every Canadian province, every New Zealand region, every EU country every UK jurisdiction. You can waste an awful lot of money on third rate chatbots and low level self assembly forms. Zoom makes this all so easy. Just do it.

Offer

Just because this wisdom has been presented to you free via a blog, do not make the mistake of thinking it valueless. A few strokes of the keyboard and it can be reconfigured into a consultancy report which will cost you a satisfying fortune. Get in touch if that would be helpful

To conclude

Meanwhile, back to my glass of wine. That was more cathartic than I expected. If you are in the Northern Hemisphere, have a good summer. Pity about climate change. Personally, I am about to hit the Sahara that seems to have moved to southern France.

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