LexisNexis, the international legal technology company and publisher, provided one of the most interesting contributions to the Civil Justice Council’s December forum in London from its committee on litigants in person. Senior executives Christian Fleck and James Harper presented what the former called the ‘foundation for a ten year vision’ of the impact that the private sector, working hand-in-hand with the advice sector, can make to access to justice. The initiative raises rather different issues than the current discussion being conducted under the heading ‘let’s sleep with Google’. The vision is also sufficiently sophisticated to demand a response from the legal and advice sector.
There is, as yet, relatively little to see in physical terms as the strategy is still in, to use the jargon of the industry, ‘proof of concept’ stage. But, the strategy raises as many interesting questions as the implementation. In the absence of any coherent vision for the use of technology from the sector itself or from an intellectually moribund Legal Aid Agency, LexisNexis is developing priorities which reflect a degree of outside expertise albeit, let us acknowledge, an element of enlightened self-interest (though not necessarily the worse for that). As proof of the coherence of its approach, LexisNexis’ thoughts are not that far from the technology strategy of the US Legal Services Corporation which has five main aims: 1 Creating a unified “legal portal” for each state which uses an automated triage process. directs persons needing legal assistance. 2 Deploying sophisticated document assembly applications to support the creation of legal documents by service providers and by litigants. 3 Taking advantage of mobile technologies to reach more persons more effectively. 4 Applying business process/analysis to all access-to-justice activities to make them as efficient as practicable. 5 Developing “expert systems” to assist lawyers and other services providers.
LexisNexis begins with a commitment directly relevant to access to justice. It produces materials and technology for the legal sector. So, no surprise that Christian Fleck poses on its website the company’s core as ‘the central objective of advancing the Rule of Law.’ James Harper is happy to expand: ‘the rule of law is needed for economies to prosper … what we do as a business directly impacts on the rule of law’. So, it is logical for LexisNexis not only to provide profitable tools to assist practitioners but also to put some welly into supporting the rule of law. And this it has creditably done by such initiatives as developing a rule of law impact tracker and working with the United Nations on its Business for the Rule of Law initiative. LexisNexis also partnered with the International Bar Association to create the Eye Witness app, a tool for those reporting atrocities.
The company, thus, operates in the access to justice field within an international context and with some experience of partnering with leading organisations. So, what happens when such a commercial behemoth stoops to look at the technology needs of access to justice providers in England and Wales? Well, first, it likes to be practical; wants to devote internal resources rather than making external payments; and to sniff the wind. ‘We live,’ says Mr Harper, ‘by the principles of agile. We want to build something to solve problems, doing it quickly with minimal impact on commercial activities but maximum impact for recipients’. It ran an initial hackathon – called HackTheChange – jointly with Amazon for the LBGT advocacy organisation, the Human Dignity Trust. This was won by a team which created ‘a covert app is to “hide in plain sight”. The idea is to piggyback inside Snapchat [with a reporting function for abuses … NGOs will then receive raw data from users and can start to tag the data and view the incidents that users have uploaded. The beauty of this approach was to harness the existing Snapchat infrastructure of confidentially transmitting data and deleting it, so it is never stored with users – only on the NGO side and through a secure AWS server.’
This kind of ‘show and tell’ or ‘show and learn’ approach does not always work. LexisNexis explored the idea of creating a portal for the advice sector – which might have been very similar to those being developed in the United Sates, in part with Microsoft assistance to the LSC. But, all too understandably for those familiar with the UK advice sector, the sector was incapable of responding with a sufficiently unified approach. This is the downside of the lack of a central funder like the LSC in the jurisdictions of the UK.
At the National Forum, Christian Fleck outlined the four strategies which the company was advocating. The first was the development of productivity tools for the advice and pro bono sector. The second was a range of tools to help client self-service. The third was assisting ‘matchmaking and referrals’ and the fourth was help with remote advice clinics using video and remote booking tools.
The mere articulation of these four strategic goals is immensely valuable. It reflects exactly the leadership that one would expect from public sources or the sector itself and, in their absence, one can only commend a commercial organisation that speaks up for them. At the very least, they should stimulate other funders in the field, such as the few active trusts and foundations, to articulate their priorities. And, in a logical world, the advice and legal sector engaged in providing legal services to people on low incomes might be prompted to respond in a creative debate about what it felt that it needed.
The need for coherence is critical. And, as it develops its strategy, LexisNexis will have to absorb the complexities of an atomised advice and legal sector. It has been working on an automated document self assembly product in the field of disability which is currently on trial with two advice agencies in London. There are other players in the field with which there will need to be liaison. The Legal Education Foundation (supporters of this website) and Comic Relief have being working with Se-Ap to produce C-App, ‘a mobile enabled website providing ‘virtual advocacy’, which was launched in January 2016 … The site starts out with basic questions, but then goes down several layers, so people can really understand what the assessor is looking for. When they say, “can you feed yourself?” People may say, “yes”, but does that mean you can only eat takeaways? Does that mean you can only cook beans? Or, are you able to use a cooker or microwave? Are you able to walk across the kitchen holding a plate of food? It goes into a lot more detail, so that people can be really clear about the limitations on their lives.’ After completing the app process, users have the option to print out their assessment, which gives them a record of the key information. ‘If there is a specific question they’ve answered which indicates that they are definitely entitled to the benefit, at the end, the app will flag that up, and say: “You must make sure the assessor knows x, y, and z.”’ National advice organisation, AdviceNow, has also developed a similar tool.
So, the actual execution of LexisNexis’ strategy will take care and attention if it is to avoid duplication and provide the co-ordination which is necessary. But its great benefit should be that it prompts questions that providers in the sector have to answer.