Poor People and Legal Tech: a short overview of where we are now

There can be no doubt of legal tech’s impaction the legal commercial market. Over 4,000 attended the latest ILTACON US conference and more than 2,000 the London LegalGeek equivalent. One estimate of the current US spend on legal tech is $1.5bn on software alone: another states ‘Some estimates value the market size at as much as $400 billion’. A further suggests that ‘the global LegalTech market is estimated to be worth $15.9 billion, and growing.’ Stanford lists 1059 legal start ups on its CodeX Techindex. All this frenetic action, interest and expenditure could not avoid being a source of inspiration, not to say jealousy, in the legal aid/legal services/access to justice sector of the legal market. But, overall, though playing an increasing role, technology is having a less traceable impact – at least for the moment.

Four or five years ago, it did appear that a number of developments might kickstart an interest in tech among access to justice providers. First, de-regulation of the legal profession in England and Wales looked likely to encourage providers like Co-operative Legal Services (CLS) which would link web-led legal firms with DIY unbundled legal services in cheap packages in areas like divorce. Second, led by the Rechtwijzer project funded by the Dutch Legal Aid Board, it looked like there might be an internationally marketed product that combined guided pathways with online assistance in court proceedings. Third, judicial reports in England and Wales suggested that small claims court might have a ‘solution explorer’ front end that would link DIY assistance with court proceedings. 

These initiatives all failed to some extent for individual reasons. But, behind those, there were structural elements. Fundamentally, there is just not the money around to finance major investment – particularly in jurisdictions like England and Wales where legal aid is being cut back at precisely this moment by government policies of fiscal austerity. The Dutch Legal Aid Board eventually pulled the plug on its Rechtwijzer investment, fearing it would represent a bottomless hole. Furthermore, ‘poverty law’ is much more jurisdiction-specific than major commercial legal undertakings like merger and acquisition. Data is, in any event, unlikely to be as ‘clean’ among hard pressed small providers as among large corporate ones. Many have only just started to use computers. And, in any event, controversy rages over just how much technical, cultural, linguistic and cognitive disabilities might impair poorer users from accessing and applying high tech solutions to their problems – but they clearly do to some extent. Finally, most providers in most jurisdictions are up against the wall just to continue existing levels of service in a post-bank crash world where government funding is tighter and tighter.

There are, however, glimmers of light. The US Legal Services Corporation (LSC) holds an increasingly important annual conference on technology which has begun to attract interest beyond LSC grantees. Many providers in all jurisdictions are using standard productivity tools such as Microsoft Office. There is a lot of interest in exploring digitally assisted self-help. The US has led the way in court-oriented provision such as its A2J author software which allows non-technical authors to write programmes to assist self-represented litigants. In England and Wales, self-help programmes have been developed to assist applicants to obtain disability benefits. Over the world, websites providing guidance and information are being improved. In England and Wales, those running citizensadvice.org.uk can trace which parts of a page are most helpful and amend accordingly. MyLawBC.com in British Columbia takes users down guided pathways to give them advice in an innovative interactive way that is a direct legacy of the  Rechtwijzer. In the US, Microsoft is partnering with the LSC to provide two demonstration statewide portals to legal assistance. In Australis, Google has just done the same thing with the NGO Justice Connect. There are also innovative developments like Project Callisto developing totally innovative ways using technology to combat sexual harassment on university campuses. And, in the field of digital advisor support, we have the continued success of Rightsnet in the UK. 

So, what is the take away? As far as legal tech and poor people are concerned, there is no ‘killer app’. There are, however, a myriad of small scale advances. And, there is the continued spur of the froth on the commercial legal tech bubble. So, who knows what is to come? But, there is bound to be more progress and it needs to be charted on an international basis because, though substantive law may be local, technology cannot help but be international.

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