#WiredJustice was a conference organised by Legal Aid Ontario to follow the annual meeting of Canada’s Association of Legal Aid Plans which was held at a resort north of Toronto last week. Its subject was the impact of technology on access to justice and legal aid. The audience was not large but the programme was expansive and extensive use was made of video to bring in speakers from Europe and the States to supplement the speakers who were physically present. The keynote speakers were former Ontario Attorney General Chris Bentley, now head of the Legal Innovation Zone at Toronto’s Ryerson University and myself. We were physically present but the vast majority of other speakers – around 10 – were beamed in. This was the most ambitious use of technology to structure a conference that I have yet seen. So what did we learn
1. Legal aid conferences, and more importantly policy-making, must now be international
One of the hits of the conference was the presentation of MyLawBC. This is home grown Canadian but it is powered by Modria software based in the US and was developed through a contract with The Hague Institute for the Innovation of Law in The Netherlands. The example of provision in other countries, particularly the US, formed a large part of the content and presentations included Illinois Legal Aid Online, the A2j software developed at the Center for Computer Assisted Learning and Instruction and the Legal Services Corporation. Technology has finally kicked into touch some of the provincialism that has affected legal aid thinking in the past and which the International Legal Aid Group was established to counter.
2. Commercial forces are relevant in new ways to legal aid provision.
In countries like England and Wales with mixed or largely private forms of provision, commercial forces have always been relevant, and reflected in, legal aid services. However, this had been through the medium of lawyer private practitioners competing for market share between themselves. Latterly, forms of contracting have largely squeezed out this element of the market. But now we have the entry of non-legal commercial entities like ROSS who are developing artificial intelligence in a legal context (and arguing that this will transform poverty law practice as it will do the same for the high end corporate world), companies like Modria developing ODR systems and self-financing academic institutions like HiiL which have to compete for business like any other commercial provider.
3. The US is back as a leader of legal aid provision
The US led the world in legal aid and legal services policy in the 1970s. It was then eclipsed by the rise of the Brits as UK legal aid bodies took the lead in a series of policies designed to give better direction to legal aid schemes that had grown like Topsy but without a policy lead. Cuts bit deep into what the LSC could do and diverted its attention to domestic survival. But, the LSC has now got to a period of stability and has approached the issue of at technology with a precision missing elsewhere. It decided on a set of strategic goals and is now using a dedicated funding stream to fund innovation to meeting them. Illinois Legal Aid Online’s recent revamp is one of the consequences and a step to meeting the goal of improved initial triage.
4. Canada provides good examples of the diversity of approach to technology
BC is a hothouse of cutting edge provision with three leading elements of provision – MyLawBC, the civil resolution tribunal and the work of the Justice Education Society. Ryerson University is collaborating with Ontario’s Ministry of Attorney General to encourage legal start ups. Montreal has its Cyberjustice Laboratory. The people involved in ROSS are Canadians, though now relocated to California. It is the kind of mixed, unjoined up pattern of provision that you could probably find in any country save that Canada seems to have its disproportionate share of centres of excellence.
5. Conferences can use technology to reflect the international
Ten speakers coming in to rural Ontario by realtime video and wanting to use PowerPoint? This is not a conference that I would care to be responsible for. You wouldn’t sleep for the week beforehand. But, actually, it worked. You needed good preparation, nimble IT staff on hand, some heavy gear and a modicum of patience. You also needed your speakers really to be at their desktop and wearing headsets for best reception. But this is the way that we are going to have to go – with a mix of virtual and actual attendees and speakers if we are to reflect the necessary international influences on legal aid in the future within budgets that will unavoidably be squeezed. And the conference showed just how much we need to do this. Well done, LAO.