Taking stock: seven themes in current developments

The use of digital delivery is developing – in the field of legal services for those on low incomes as elsewhere –  so fast that it is worth checking every so often that the major themes are being identified. Otherwise, you can lose touch with a comprehensive view of what is going on. Back at the beginning of the year, Digital Delivery of Legal Services to People on Low Incomes  set out five overall themes under which you could get a grasp of what is happening. These probably need a bit of revision. Below are my suggestions of the major headings under which we can understand what is currently happening but, if you have amendments, additions or suggestions, do get in touch at the address below.

  1. the consequences of general technological developments

In general, legal services for those on low incomes will not attract the level of finance available in the commercial field. Thus, the kind of development, often around the use of artificial intelligence, being trumpeted in the world of the large corporate law firms is unlikely to be so important in the downmarket area of law for the poor. Thus, we are not going to see the kind of tie-ups now emerging in the City of London that have DLA Piper linking with Kira Systems  and  Allen and Overy with i2 and Deloittes. AI is, however, likely to transform advocacy through its capacity to manipulate data and law. This will impact on all areas of law. We can see other spin-offs of other cutting edge digital development.  Blockchain technology (which is behind bitcoin), is beginning to impact on some types of issues relevant to legal services for the poor, such as its ability to verify identity through patterns of user recognition. This is being used to assist Syrian refugees to prove identity and obtain debit cards. As familiarity with technological advances grows, so does their imaginative use in the field of access to justice. Groups in Peru, for example, are seeking to use the GPS functions of smartphones in campaigns against land seizures, an Open Society Foundation conference in Ottawa was told in June.

  1. the development of guided pathways to provide information and services

The guided pathway approach has already shown potential in the Dutch Rechtwijzer and its offshoots – MyLawBC in British Columbia and Relate. This way of using the dynamic potential of the net to give tailored advice has also been developed independently by a private law firm in Siaro. The potential seems enormous and, once experienced, seems to set a new standard for information and advice on the net which makes the conventional scrolling of information rapidly feel outdated.

  1. the possibilities of automated document assembly

Automated document assembly is, in some ways, related to the notion of guided pathways. It is, in effect, a guided pathway designed to produce a document populated by answers which the user gives to a series of specific questions. The world leader in a court context is the a2j software developed for self-represented litigants in the United States. But, the approach is widely used in other contexts – for example by Legal Zoom for wills in the US and by the NGO in the UK that produced a site designed to produce ‘living wills’, directions on health care for those who fear being under a disability.

  1. the development of a variety of virtual legal practices

All round the world, providers are experimenting with the provision of legal services using the capacities of the web. Video communication, through Skype and other providers, provides a very straightforward way of delivering legal services in a personal way to remote locations.

  1. the emergence of challenge funds, hackathons, incubators and other ways of kickstarting developments;

Entities from Hackney Community Law Centre in London to universities in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto, Canada are seeking to marshall the spirit of competition and collaboration that marks the spirit of the digital age. This marks a new way of kickstarting provision adapted to digital practice.

  1. the expansion of Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) into the courts and tribunals likely to relevant to those on low incomes.

The onward march of ODR continues. There is widespread discussion and exploration of its potential. The Civil Resolution Tribunal in British Columbia has opened its door to its housing jurisdiction with small claims to come. There are proposals in England and Wales to establish an online small claims court.

  1. the relationship of face to face and digital services.

Finally, the issue of a digital divide (in which a section of population is disadvantaged by lack of access to services provided overwhelmingly by digital means) needs some recognition as a theme. The Dutch conceived their Rechtwijzer programme as supplemented by a network of physical offices ‘law counters’ where people could get face to face assistance. There seems a working assumption in the governments of some jurisdictions, notably England and Wales, that users can be assisted digitally and that ODR may be developed satisfactorily without the provision of face to face physical assistance. Many of those working in the field of actually providing legal services and advice to people are intensely sceptical about the degree to which digital services can work for populations and constituencies who are already hard to reach. The relationship between face to face and digital provision and ways in which the digital divide might be addressed need to be logged and considered.

Comment to rsmith@rogersmith.info

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