Technology and Innovation: the strange case of the missing Ministry

The British state is not having a great pandemic. For example, there are, confusingly, five tests for four levels of alert to be determined by a Joint Biosecurity Centre which seems yet to exist. A blanket quarantine period has been imposed on all entrants to the country, even those (like most of the world) with lower infection rates. Questionable policy has combined with poor implementation. Protective equipment was lacking; lockdown was late; testing was slow; and our allegedly world-beating tracking app has yet to turn up. All this is giving rise to a gathering sense of political crisis and failure of confidence. But, away from these raging torrents in the public eye, similar issues are showing up even in the slow-moving shallows of access to justice. And they are illustrated in microcosm by a zoom presentation last week from research and design consultancy, Etic Lab LLP of its work on a grant from Innovate UK.

Innovate UK is part of  UK Research and Innovation, an overarching body that brings together seven specific research councils, Innovate UK and Research England. These have a combined annual spending power of £7bn. Innovate UK’s role is ‘to find and drive the science and technology innovations that will grow the UK economy’. It has 250 staff and a five point plan which is essentially about accelerating economic growth through innovation. It administered the funds that resourced the NESTA/SRA Legal Access Challenge on behalf of the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. But its general remit is staggeringly wide, as can be seen from its recently released information on projects which it has funded from 2004 until 1 May 2020. These total some £9bn and include topics such as a low cost nuclear challenge and a whole host of grants on energy and manufacturing. The list indicates that, as at 1 May of this year, Etic had been offered a grant of £173,486. 

It is worth looking at Etic’s pitch for the grant: ‘Advice agencies, support providers, clearinghouses and public legal education providers all exist to help people when they need support to solve their legal problems. However, accessing this complex network of support is complicated … For the volunteers and staff who provide the support, there is an urgent, unmet need to explore this complex network of interlocking and overlapping services. For these service providers, knowing where the client has been before, what advice they’ve received, whether they have acted on that advice, what assistance other agencies can provide, whether the other agencies have capacity and the justice outcomes of the clients they help is crucial. … a system is required which can provide an overview of the complex network for any clients and all of the different advisors. This project is designed to test the feasibility of creating such a resource and adding functionality by deriving from the transaction data created, a picture of what can be done and ultimately what has best served particular client groups. Above all, the project is intended to help volunteers and staff provide support that is intelligent and responsive. This project will explore both the possibility of advice charities sharing data to understand their user’s journeys and where users would benefit from being guided into the wider legal services market. This will support … stronger relationships with private legal services providers to appropriately direct clients who can afford services. It is expected that this will increase the number of users of the legal services market but also have the effect of diversifying service provision.’

Etic has now completed its project and you can read its report – provided that you are willing to shell out £20 even for a downloaded digital copy. Spend your money (I will disclose I blagged a free one) and you get a report which is subject to a somewhat unusually wide restriction on quotation – even brief extracts and quotations require specific permission from the publisher. For the avoidance of doubt, I have not sought such permission; I am not quoting from the report; and in setting out its conclusions I am relying on my notes of Etic’s presentation to a briefing, details of which are available for free on its website. 

Etic’s identified the following as needs of the access to justice sector:

1. A common Case Management System for all providers. 

2. A network directory: an intelligent service map. 

3. A Mathematical Model for the Access to Justice System

4. Federated Learning: This seems to be a process that allows data to be brought together from a variety of sources ie would allow the aggregation of information from a wide range of agencies. Etic is taking this forward with the Law Centres Network so we should be able to see what it means in practice.

5. An Integrated Communications Suite: This is a project for which Etic has received more funds and it is intended to pull together combined video-conferencing, secure document transfer and a searchable list of authorised providers.

As a set of technology needs, these are insightful. Etic has done well to identify them. But, there are two elements of context which are missing. The first is what else exists out there to meet these needs. AI-assisted referral to disparate providers has been explored in both the US and Australia. One of the problems remains the initial data on agencies: experience seems to suggest you just cannot rely on scraping this from websites. You actively have to chase up changing opening hours, addresses and provision.

Plus, there is another problem implicit in Etic’s initial statement of its case, the encouragement of greater relationships of advice agencies with private providers. Most users of access to justice agencies have very little money: private practitioners might meet some of their needs through low cost or pro bono schemes but nowhere like enough. 

It is at this point that you realise what is missing. With the cuts to legal aid, the Ministry of Justice has no overall policy for access to justice. It funds only what it is protected by human rights legislation – that was the explicit basis on which it made the 2012 cuts. Another department is responsible for the central provision of the Citizens Advice Service. Law centres are funded through a patchwork of funding – though some of it comes from the Ministry of Justice in recognition of needs triggered by Covid-19. Local agencies – citizens advice bureaux and other advice bodies – are largely funded by local authorities. There is no overview. There is no strategy. There is no plan.

And the result of this is seen in technology as elsewhere. The US Legal Services Corporation runs a technical grants programme in the context of its overall federal funding of civil legal services. The UK has no overseeing body. Innovate UK is, no doubt, doing its best but even with 250 staff is going to hard pressed to address the needs of developing electric cars, nuclear power and access to justice. 

The Ministry of Justice needs to return from having gone policy walkabout. Until 2012, it could argue – at least theoretically –  that legal aid discharged its access to justice obligations. Having cut the legal aid advice budget pretty well in total, the Ministry has to develop a policy strategy for the way forward. This will be harder than previously because it also cut the Legal Services Commission which knew about these things in detail.

Even if the Ministry came out with a policy based on four levels or five tests or six principles and an acknowledgement that it was not entirely in control of what is provided, it would suggest a better coherence than the current vacuum. Without it, government policy is failing and flailing – putting the cart before the horse and leaving Innovate UK to lead on the technology to deliver access to justice without a coherent strategy behind it.

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