Digital Delivery of Legal Services to People on Low Incomes: 8 things we learnt over the last year

The 2017 report on Digital Delivery of Legal Services to People on Low Incomes was published today with eight conclusions summarising the current state of play which are set out below. For more detail, consult the full report.

1. The legal profession over the world is recognising that major change will follow from technological developments and that this has begun and should be monitored. In all, five reports were published in the last year by Law Societies and Bar Associations on the impact of aspects of technology – though it may yet fully to bite in the sense of re-engineering the legal market. Firms are, at variable rates, absorbing technology in the management of their practice. There has yet to be a decisive move to providing services to the ‘latent legal market’ of those on low incomes willing to pay low sums for legal assistance.

2. The momentum of legal tech start ups outside the legal profession is palpable – and very obvious in both the United States and England and Wales. Some innovators – like RocketLawyer and LegalZoom – are focusing on direct service provision of low cost services but are still having relatively minor impact on the legal market. The number of innovation hubs is growing but the impact is to be seen. Hackathons are often focusing on access to justice issues but we need to see more sustained take up of their ideas.

3. There is a gradual improvement of web-provided information as the first line of service to someone in need of legal services, instanced by Citizens Advice in England and Wales and the CLEO-led Steps for Justice programme. There is improvement too in online triage programmes with the prospect of a Microsoft-assisted project in Alaska and Hawaii that may prove a model for the United States. MyLawBC continues as a exemplary interactive information programme and there is increasing interest in chatbots. At the apex of this movement in terms of delivery is potentially the Australian development of a computer generated face known as Nadia using a wide range of artificial intelligence and the voice of Cate Blanchett to promote a new disability scheme. There is potential for international comparison and collaboration in relation to legal triage sites whose various forms put different weight on referral, online assistance and intake.

4. The failure of the Dutch Rechtwijzer online dispute resolution programme leaves British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal (which goes live in relation to some small claims tomorrow) and its Solution Explorer as the leading example of an interactive online tribunal seeking to be accessible to users who are representing themselves. It proceeds to small claims in June. There are bold plans for England and Wales to develop an online small claims court though some doubts already about how well this will be done. Performance needs to be rigorously monitored but it is not clear that sufficient attention has been given to user-orientated performance indicators.

5. The provision of legal services to those on low incomes and the adjudication of their problems is becoming ever more fragmented. Legal aid administrations are being revealed in many jurisdictions as representing only part of the assistance available. That points to a potential leadership gap. Which institution will lead on public debate and government action on access to justice? In England and Wales, the judge-led Civil Justice Council is stepping into this gap. Elsewhere, particularly in the US, there has been the growth of access to justice committees of all the stakeholders, often chaired by a judge. This can be effective but no one institution has the power of influence that was once held – for example by the Legal Services Commission in England and Wales. There is a valuable role for, on the one hand, law societies and Bar Associations to chart developments and, on the other, for governments to ensure an overall equitable result in the balance of power between different interests in society.

6. We need much more rigorous performance standards, monitoring and evaluation, particularly of government funded technology projects. As innovation proceeds, we will get some idea about the fundamental issue of how well people can access digital provision but we need to keep researching and monitoring this. We certainly need to remember that we are still a long way from ‘digital only’ and that workable face to face provision is still required where we require 100 per access to provision such as a court or tribunal.

7. We should look for more innovation in the training of advisers and the education of users via the net.

8. Finally, we can, as yet, draw very few conclusions on how accessible technology will make legal and adjudication services. We need both to keep the fast-moving big picture under evaluation but also to pick up on the opportunity for more limited immediate improvements for access to justice which may arise. The need to keep an eye on the international has never been so great.

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