The Challenge of Access to Justice: moving beyond the hackathon

As the LegalTech market started to explode a few years ago, optimism grew that its impact would improve both commercial practice and access to justice. Alas, this has not really proved to be the case. A challenge fund established by Nesta and the Solicitors Regulation Authority is an attempt further to jumpstart strategic assistance to the field of access to justice which LegalTech is in danger of leaving behind.

Nesta used to be called the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts – demonstrating perhaps that abbreviation does not necessarily improve clarity. It has developed a way of working through challenge funds which it organises for other organisations on subjects from drones to access to justice. Though common in other fields, the creation of a challenge fund is an interesting development in the world of access to justice, moving us away from an early format of the hackathon. 

A specific site covers this particular legal access challenge. Nesta has also produced a background review of the role of technology in access to justice to be reviewed separately. Its challenge has three stated aims:

  • accelerating the development of products, services and platforms that will help individuals and SMEs understand and resolve their legal problems with greater ease;
  • developing a community of people and organisations with a shared interest in implementing the use of technology to improve access to legal support who will share knowledge and ideas to improve customer outcomes in the legal services market; and
  • learning whether there are regulatory barriers to the development and adoption of mass market legal technology solutions and, if so, what adaptations to the SRA’s approach might reduce these barriers.

The challenge has a pretty broad remit: ‘We welcome applications from a diverse mix of entities, including legal tech startups, law firms, alternative legal providers, advice sector organisations and teams based at law schools. We also welcome joint applications from two or more entities. The solution you submit to the Challenge should be at an early or proof-of-concept stage. If this is the first legal technology solution your team is working on, that’s fine. If your team has already brought another legal tech solution to market, that’s also fine, provided the solution you submit to the Challenge is at an early or proof-of-concept stage.

Your solution might apply to just one area of law, or to multiple areas of law. We have not prioritised any one area of law, but we’ll be particularly interested in legal problems that affect large numbers of people and/or create substantial harm for those affected …

We’re seeking solutions which demonstrate how digital technology can directly help individuals and SMEs to understand and resolve their legal problems in more affordable and accessible ways. The Challenge will 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…’

The proposed solution must be applicable to England and Wales but Nesta makes its clear that ‘you, your team or organisation may be based anywhere in the world’.What is on offer is £50,000 for finalists and an extra £50,000 for the winner. You get technical assistance as well.The application window runs from 30 May to 11 August. If you were thinking of applying, you need to consult the website for the details and think of coming to the launch event (see below) on 30 May.

 This funding comes from the government to Nesta via the Solicitors Regulation Authority. The degree to which this is practically important is to be seen. Certainly compared with jurisdictions like the US, the regulatory yoke is fairly light and the challenge may just confirm the advantages of that.

The challenge is pretty widely drafted and ‘welcome(s) applications from a diverse mix of entities, including legal tech startups, law firms, alternative legal providers, advice sector organisations and teams based at law schools. We also welcome joint applications from two or more entities.The solution you submit to the Challenge should be at an early or proof-of-concept stage. If this is the first legal technology solution your team is working on, that’s fine. If your team has already brought another legal tech solution to market, that’s also fine, provided the solution you submit to the Challenge is at an early or proof-of-concept stage.’

At a formal level, challenges like this represent an interesting and creative development of the hackathon. That, as a form, was symptomatic of the early technological optimism. Access to justice, it was implied, was a solvable problem awaiting only the appropriate application of technology. There were a  number of hackathons with access to justice themes. For example, LegalGeek, the UK’s largest and most energetic promoter of LegalTech start ups, sought to use a hackathon to address the issue of ‘advice deserts’ at its conference in 2016. It addressed online courts the next year – with the participation of the then Lord Chief Justice. But the lure of major financial returns has now – with some few exceptions – largely detached LegalTech as a whole from its component relating to access to justice.

The problem for the hackathon was that initial enthusiasm rather obscured some fundamental issues. It was always inherently unlikely that a group of non-experts high on Red Bull, craft beer and pizza would solve problems like ‘advice deserts’ over a weekend when everyone else – civil servants, practitioners – had failed. And no amount of enthusiasm could replace the cold fact that advice provision costs money – even if services might be better leveraged. Advice deserts exist because there are no providers serving the area of the desert. And, technology in the field of access to justice was always unlikely to be based on a ‘fire and forget’ model. Users were going to need some human assistance as well as some underlying provision.

There are existing examples of developments similar to Nesta’s, suggesting an emerging trend. The Global Legal Hackathon is approaching its ‘finals gala’ with competitors from around the world, some of which are promoting – and giving useful publicity to – applications that have access to justice applications. The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law, runs another global challenge competition. Its ‘justice accelerator’ has identified a range of very interesting projects around the world. What gives these projects their value is that the competitive element of the hackathon is linked to a collaborative approach aiming to help all the contestants with both finance and other resources.

There are. of course, already good – but, frankly, few – domestic examples of the use of technology in the access to justice field. Agencies are delivering remote advice sessions through video links; users are receiving the benefit of client relationship management tools developed in the commercial sector; there are various ‘platform’ sites for users and practitioners; there are online support networks for advisers; there are few interactive self help tools. Above all, there is the strength of citizensadvice.org.uk and advicenow.org.uk, which – as ‘linear’ general advice sites – can genuinely claim to be among the world’s best.

 But, the new frontier for development is surely ranged along the possibilities of the interactive use of technology. Let’s take some examples from other jurisdictions. Justfix.nyc helps tenants in New York to record repair issues and to structure their correspondence with the landlord. It came third in HiiL’s Innovating Justice Challenge in 2017. Interestingly, it depends crucially on linking tenants with representative tenant organisations which can provide help – something which has slowed, but hopefully not halted, its roll out to other locations. Lawpadi is one of a number of examples of a chatbot that interactively helps you with the law, in this case of Nigeria. Justice Bot does pretty much the same in Uganda with more emphasis on referral. Both suggest how advice sites might develop here.

One legacy of the Rechtwijzer is the ‘guided pathway’ in which a user is shepherded through the issues raised by their query by their response to questions. A good example or this approach is mylawbc.com which focuses largely on matrimonial matters. Information is, thus, provided in a less linear way than on more straightforward sites. A  related approach is taken by British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal’s first step, the Solution Explorer, which suggests various interactive ways in which a potential dispute may be defined and possibly settled. Interactivity is slowly entering the field of customer or client management software, allowing users to pre-identify their issues; potentially get some initial advice; and reduce their costs.

 The general field of interactive document assembly is another fertile field for development in England and Wales. One of the great successes in the US is a2j author which provides the tools by which anyone – commercial or not for profit – can develop guided interviews through a visual interface. It has been used in a variety of different states by a variety of different institutions that have provided their own content. A similar programme would be outside Nesta’s brief but the potential of document assembly software for both individuals and businesses is clear and there are a number of examples already running domestically. A challenge – which may need human supervision – is to ensure that the software is sufficiently sophisticated to ‘red flag’ anomalous cases that require individual attention.

A potential use of technology is the deployment of various types of platforms to bring together users and providers in different ways. So, you might have a user discussion site that links to referral. This is where it would seem that the Solicitors Regulation Authority might be most interested in the transparency and nature of any links between providers and platforms. That brings up the issue of sustainability. Somehow, any project is going to have to show that it can continue after the build stage. But, poor clients have, by definition, no money – though some may have a little if the price can be reduced sufficiently.

 Nesta’s challenge confirms the evolution of the competitive hackathon model, providing assistance as well as competition. To launch the Challenge, NESTA is convening an evening panel event in London on Thursday 30th May at 5.30pm to discuss: 

● How far can tech go in making legal support accessible and affordable to everybody? Is tech going to transform how people experience legal services?

● What barriers are holding back innovation in tech that directly helps people to resolve their legal problems?

● Who should play what part in encouraging a new generation of digital legal services?

You can apply for a ticket at https://events.nesta.org.uk/legalaccesschallenge. And you certainly might find it worth your while to consult the challenge site.

 In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that I gave advice to Nesta on the current state of access to justice and have agreed to be a judge of the challenge.

 

 

 

 

 

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