Realising the potential of technology in A2J: US legal services chief suggests how

Jim Sandman is the President of the US Legal Services Corporation. He is a longtime supporter of the the use of technology in the service of access to justice.  His attendance and contribution have become fixtures at the annual technology conferences run by the corporation. The conference has grown and grown: this year’s has just under 600 delegates and just under 200 speakers. It is being held in Portland, Oregon. The Corporation’s President concentrated on five requirements for technology to realise its full potential in the delivery of access to justice.

Mr Sandman has drunk the Kool Aid on the values of global collaboration. His first requirement for the effective use of technology is a network to assess what is going on  around the world – ‘We need a global clearing house of who is doing what in technology’. This should be accessible, a ‘comprehensive catalogue’, and include evaluation . For this, he said, we need a host. And he cited the work in this area being done by Stanford academic Margaret Hagan, who will address later workshops at the conference. She is already associated with this sort of exercise on a domestic basis so building out from that would make sense.

Second, we need ‘a clear eyed recognition of the limitations of legal technology.’ He accepted that there will always be a segment of the population that cannot use technology for a variety of reasons.

Third, there is a need for much more collaboration. The delegates at the conference combine techies, academics and lawyers so he got a cheer for observing that the concept of innovation led by lawyers was an oxymoron. There needed to be a wide coalition of those involved both nationally and internationally.

Fourth, he argued that there was an ‘obvious and perennial need’ for the funding of this sort of initiative. No dispute there.

Lastly, there was a need for leadership to bring about such a global strategic approach: ‘We need people who have both the power and the inclination to lead’ on this issue. We need lawyers ‘willing to think big’.

Mr Sandman’s ideas merit consideration around the world. A funder like the World Bank or a globally orientated foundation might be interested in resourcing a proposal put together in the right way. It would be bold. It could really give a boost to the use of technology.

On the other hand, simple though they may seem to be, these kind of global initiatives can be hard to pull off well – partly this is because they are not simply only data collection exercises. Most value comes from discriminating judgement on the basis of the collected data. International engagement may involve considerable tact and willingness to make difficult judgements. The UNDP has put together a global study on legal aid: it is not clear that it has achieved that much ore than a few more stats.

And the technical element of the project would not be easy. At the core of this proposal would be some form of interactive database of what is going on; who is doing it; who is evaluating it; what is the nature of the evaluation; the stage of its delivery and so on. This is a massive data collection job that would have to be also characterised by speed and efficiency to be of any use.

All these concerns might amount, however, only to the desirability of some light and responsive organisation headed operationally by someone with the clout to get the show on the road and sensitively to promote the results. You would want also a political leader – a chair of the board. It would be difficult to imagine anyone better than Mr Sandman himself who is edging towards a decade at the Legal Services Corporation and might in due course fancy a change. If not him, someone very like him.

And you would want an oversight committee with an international membership. It would be the kiss of death for this project to be seen too closely as emanating from the US. On democratic grounds alone, you would want an Australian, someone from the Netherlands, a Brit, a South African, a South American, an Indian and a Canadian for a start. And, true to the inclusive principle, they could not all be lawyers. It will be difficult to avoid it all becoming unwieldy.

And, truth to tell, you would also need what amounts to a separate and sixth requirement. You would want to create a community of interested practitioners around the world who were familiar with each other’s work and interested in the cross-fertilisation of ideas. That would provide the ballast for a project which might otherwise have too much superstructure and not enough depth – something of which you could accuse the UNDP project. Happily, the conference has a session tomorrow on this very topic with a Brit, an Aussie and a Canadian. That could lead to the start of something useful at a very practical level. What a sensible element to what is, as Mr Sandman claimed, the best conference in the world (I think he meant on access to justice).


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