Since its first London conference in 2016, Legal Geek’s annual gatherings (paused only for Covid) have provided an uptodate view of the state of the legal tech industry. Over the last two days, an audience of around 2000 has heard close to two dozen overt ‘Product Pitches’ supplemented by about the same of a more covert and discrete nature. In the past, Legal Geek has made great efforts to incorporate a concern with ‘Law for Good’ or for access to justice within either the same conference or another immediately following it. Reflecting a cold commercial reality, the link was rather missing this year. That may give rise some lessons for the development of the legal tech market. Law for Good is holding a smaller meeting at the University of Law in October.
Some things remain unchanged. Legal Geek and its charismatic leader Jimmy Vestbirk have kept their distinctive energy and edginess. We are still in the achingly trendy confines of a disused brewery in London’s East End. We still have calls for High Fiving as a demonstration of our collective excitement – albeit modified to the children’s game of paper, scissors stone for Covid reasons this year. There are still lots of irritating Legal Geek outsize hand gloves. Ties and suits are still banned.
The agenda was as varied and idiosyncratic as usual. The Ukrainian ambassador started things off and presentations included a brass band playing Beatles numbers. We had sessions on mental health. We had Covid exercise hero Joe Wicks (surprisingly, he looked younger in the flesh than on the telly) getting us to dance around. The venue was still full. The audience created the same buzz as at earlier events.
This year, however, there was only one mention of access to justice in the whole programme and that was in relation to Legal Geek’s support for a charity concerned with special needs children. Nothing about technology and access to justice. There was also a bit of an imbalance of advertising over analysis – which Legal Geek might look to correct at future events – but that was not so significant..
The separation of markets implicit in the separation of the two conferences and the likely disadvantage to access to justice is hardly Legal Geek’s fault. That is how things are evolving. There is no discernible government interest in access to justice in general let alone for using technology. Criminal barristers are, after all, still out on strike over remuneration in criminal cases. No other provider is as near as they are to forcing the government to provide more resources at a time when a tsunami of need for legal and benefits advice is obviously about to break.
The courts ought to be able to provide a wonderful tale of the benefits of technology in the judicial process. After all, they are in the middle of the largest technology programme in the field of justice anywhere in the world. How exciting it would have been if they could have joined the Legal Geek presentations with a display of their success. Alas, the system actually appears to be in chaos. In the words of the generally government supporting Daily Telegraph, ‘whistle-blowers told [a BBC] programme the system is faulty, unsafe and unfinished.’ Implementation is currently paused and the civil service union has voted strike over the consequences for them. A union official told the Law Gazette: ‘‘Our members are the people who pick up the pieces when Common Platform fails and they’ve had enough. Either [court] management fixes the problems or they face significant, targeted and sustained industrial action.’ Not much incentive there for a government demonstration of its competence. But, a strong confident and effective government would have a real place in Legal Geek’s presentation of the legal tech world.
The problem is that with legal aid in crisis, lacking any strategic leadership and taken up with the major immediate problems of barristers’ income, government funding for technology is unlikely for access to justice. The rest of the access to justice sector is hard pressed to keep existing services: technological innovation is isolated and sparse. No foundation or other funder is prioritising investment in technology. Providers are too atomised and small to fund any project of any size. The only exception might be Citizens Advice which runs the national advice website but its funding is tight and its ambitions do not seem to go beyond producing an excellent ‘static’ website – world leading though that be. The only hope of initiative from the access to justice sector might come from collaboration with those involved in the same issues in similar countries like Australia, Canada and the United States. That could bring together a sufficient mass to make a reasonable market. Hard to do though.
Separation of commercial from non-commercial markets is a denial of the symbiotic interaction between markets which should be possible. Those in the access to justice field should be exposed to the excitement still evident in the commercial market. After all, the lessons about the key importance of legal design – which were highlighted in some of the Legal Geek conference sessions – are common to all sectors. Not for profit agencies just as much as commercial businesses should heed the warning of US legal tech product designer Nicole Bradick to the conference that you have just seconds for a potential user to decide to read and trust your website: so, you had better make it easy for them. And if that is true for Freshfields – prominent in their attendance at the conference – it is true for any smaller legal aid firm or not for profit advice agency.