Law for Good: taking stock of A2JTech

Friday saw the final conference in Jimmy Vestbrick’s and LegalGeek’s hard working week. This was its offering on Law for Good. The fast-paced range of speakers – to which those attending all three days were, no doubt, becoming accustomed – provides an opportunity to review where we are now. So, let’s take their content and add some of the lessons that emerge from the decisions of three other very different institutions which have publicly recognised access to justice projects. That will give us a range of around 30 recent picks of the of current innovation. What are the main trends of development? 

Law for Good gave us a few overviews on global developments (me), privacy (Big Brother Watch) and design (see below). The Law Society Deputy Vice President read – without a powerpoint in sight – what felt like pretty much the same speech she had given on Wednesday. But most of the the presentations were about current products, among them representatives of the Legal Access Challenge winners discussed below. Two contrasting universities, London South Bank and Oxford, talked about legal tech courses they were organising. There was a presentation from Crowdjustice, the crowdfunding platform, which you could argue – particularly if you were British and engaged in the Brexit debate – was the product in the field with the most extensive impact on the operation of the legal system.

We can add to the LegalGeek picks those of three others. The journal of the American Bar Association has identified its annual crop of ‘legal rebels’ – listed as individuals but very much identified by the projects which they have led. LexisNexis has announced that four access to justice projects in its current cohort of beneficiaries will join its Tech Accelerator programme. And, in the UK, NESTA has announced the eight winners of its Legal Access Challenge.

The largest single category seems to be automated document self-assembly – making use of the interactive capacities of the net to help users to complete documents and, in some instances, to file them. This would cover all or part of the function of the NESTA awardees Formily (completion of Divorce Form E) and the RCJ Citizens Advice FLOWS project; the LexisNexis-recognised litigation self-help tool Courtroom5; and from the ABA, document creators Documate and Docassemble; SimpleCitizen‘s immigration assistance, the forthcoming HelloLandlord from SixFifty and bankruptcy assister Upsolve. A further step is ODR resulting from completed forms. That covers NESTA’s awards to Doteveryone and Resolver and Resolve Disputes Online.

Each of the three awarding institution recognised a project designed to assist the collection of evidence and the organisation of campaigns that might lead to litigation. LexisNexis awarded a place to JDoe which helps victims of sexual misconduct to build up cases; NESTA funded Organise which helps workers in cases relating to their employment; and the ABA recognised the woman behind the Cop Accountability Project in New York which has built up a database of misconduct by NYPD officers. Two acknowledged the growing role of analytics. NESTA funded Solomonic – which can analyse employment tribunal cases for those helpful in a particular case where it is acting as a ‘litigation friend’. The ABA recognised the work behind the SCOTUS (Supreme Court of the United States) mapping Project which draws out the lines of authority in Supreme Court. LexisNexis recognised Civvis which deploys natural language programming to translate between legal and plain language.

Behind many of the recognised programmes was the promise of helping the user dynamically through a legal process. Courtroom5 promises that in relation to litigation: LexisNexis recognised Tusk as a means of leading someone through probate or estate settlement after a death. NESTA chose Glow which helps to co-ordinate specific types of case subject to group litigation orders. NESTA recognised the value of a chatbot in the form of one produced by Royal Mencap – who also presented at the Law for Good conference – since these seem a very likely line of development.

And the two omissions? Well, interestingly, there wasn’t much talk of artificial intelligence though it was clearly at leat potentially relevant to activity like natural language processing and analytics. That may be an indicator that, on the ground, AI is not yet the selling point in relation to access to justice applications as it is in commercial fields. It may also be a reaction against some of the AI hype that has overplayed itself.

The biggest omission relates to what is probably the use of technology with the largest impact in a2j: the improvement of business processes. The reason for that may be that these developments do not need the kind of additional acknowledgement in the specific area of access to justice. Case management products, like Canadian firm Clio, are racing ahead in the market with major recognition by venture capital. They are participating in the race to provide a platform on which can be placed a range of individual products that will interface with their own. Devices like Echo Show or products like Skype or Facetime, bring down the cost of video connections so that businesses can operate virtually. But, they are promoted within a wider business context.

Let us end with the opening presentation at the Law for Good day. Designer Nicole Bradick, had a lot of sensible things to say, continuing her thoughtful contribution to debate on legal design the previous day. She continued her theme that – for all the excitement of the new – design matters; takes more money than you think; and that building a digital product is hard. Once produced, it needs serious marketing. She quoted the example of Rentervention which had been announced by billboards in Chicago. There were, she warned, too many ‘zombie products’ that failed for reasons that included bad design, inadequate marketing, overemphasis on content or failure to update. We will see how many of this current crop make it.

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