Access to Justice and Technology: report on developments 2018-9

The London-based Legal Education Foundation has just published my report on developments in access to justice and technology over the last year. This is the fourth in the series which followed an initial paper in 2014. Over this time, a number of specific access to justice initiatives have risen; had their moment in the sun; looked to transform the future; and then faded away. No one initiative is highlighted this time. Instead, there are three core themes: the most important use of technology in the sector derives from the ‘trickle down effect’ of business technology developed for commercial providers; a range of interesting – but still, overall, limited projects nibble away at the use of the interactive potential of the net; and a number of issues are beginning to emerge that we need to start thinking through.

Those that have risen and (at least relatively) fallen since 2014 include: CLS Direct and the other firms that tried to pile it high and sell it cheap on websites that offered fixed price, DIY assisted legal services; the Dutch Rechtwijzer with its promise of integrated interaction, good legal design and online mediation. And, the Australian chatbot, Nadia, which only last year had seemed that it might revolutionise the delivery of information until the plug was pulled on its cost and the limitations of current AI packages were exposed.

The emphasis on business-orientated products, like case management systems, rather than subject-oriented projects, is interesting in the light of the massive venture funding of CLIO discussed in the previous post. It implies a similar analysis – one of the biggest sources of potential comes from revolutionising basic business systems . These can massively upgrade client experience; deploy such means of communication as video; and still cut costs. Improved business practices should give a boost to the still relatively limited exploration of virtual legal practices of one kind or another.

The Rechtwijzer was the mould breaker in terms of developing the interactive presentation of information – breaking up a conventionally linear delivery into small bites through which the user followed guided pathways. MyLawBC is the best example of this sort of approach but the potential is being explored elsewhere and must be immense. The most obvious use of the interactive is, of course, chatbots. Had she lived, Nadia would have been the most sophisticated ever produced – capable of reading your response through your camera. But, the ambitious Joshua Browder is now probably the market leader.  He has just announced a suite of new products, unfortunately as yet for the US market. And, such is the commercial use of chatbots that they must make a breakthrough at some time into the provision of access to justice.

Chief among the emergent issues (which is likely to triggered significantly by the developments of chatbots) must be artificial intelligence. Nothing gets outsiders so excited – practitioners are generally a bit more cautious. Even a UK government distracted by Brexit and constricted in its spending has thrown a bit of random money at seeing what might be done in the Legal Access Challenge which will soon be adjudicated. The US Legal Services Corporation (LSC) and the Pew Charitable Trust are deep into exploring the use of AI to translate questions from users in ordinary language into a form in which a legal answer can be generated. The LSC is developing its Legal Navigator portals in Alaska and Hawaii through which users can have their queries answered and their needs met by appropriate referral. We will see next year what these – and other similar initiatives like those of JusticeConnect in Australia – can deliver.

And, of all the emergent issues, what would be the most important – and the most elusive? Yes, as you might guess – the mapping and evaluation of all these initiatives. Understandably, funders and recipients want good news stories justifying their investment. However, even some rudimentary information would be extremely helpful as those around the world struggle to learn the lessons from often distant jurisdictions: simple ‘disclosure of usage data of a website can be extremely helpful both as a spur to further action and as an indicator of success. Public disclosure simply of the numbers who stayed on a website for a length of time compatible with using it as intended would be a helpful first step to an indication of whether a project was working well or not. Add to that, if possible, some degree of selective polling of users with e.g. a pop-up questionnaire and you have the beginning of a valuable evaluation framework.’ Of course, we need more but this would be a start. 

At this moment, you could be anywhere in the world in almost any organisation and with virtually any level of resources and, at this stage of  the  development of technology in the service of access to justice, still have a potentially world-leading product. We just need to hear about it. And you need to prove it.

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