I have been the director of the Legal Action Group (LAG) for the last eleven years. We are a social enterprise and campaigning charity committed to increasing access to justice. We produce a regular magazine ten times a year; publish books in mainly social welfare/poverty law; and run courses and conferences. Our membership and subscribers are predominantly lawyers and advisers.
We are in the process, as a publisher, of implementing a digital first strategy. We bundle up an updating digital subscription with book sales for a small markup. We publish the magazine, Legal Action, both online and on paper. Interestingly, we think our market is very much split between those who want all the up to date law – so they like the possibilities of digital delivery – and those who want an overview in the traditional way that a book or an article gives. Now that cases and statutes are available from official sources on the net, barristers and other lawyers probably rely more on these primary sources. They mainly want analysis and comment from LAG rather than just reproducing the text of cases. We find that even many young students prefer paper from which to absorb information with which they are not familiar. That split between digital and paper actually reflects the overall experience of the commercial publishing market. E-books have not triumphed in the way that was forecast a few years ago.
I began as a volunteer in a TUC unemployed workers centre in Bolton. Then, I moved on to being manager of a citizens advice centre and moved from there to work at a large independent legal advice centre in Hyde near Manchester. At the Hyde centre we had a legal aid franchise [contract] in employment law. I did that for four years and then went to Rochdale Law Centre where we had franchises in housing, immigration as well as employment. I did think about going to the Bar but undertook a masters in employment law instead. I came down to London 16 years ago, originally as director of what was then the Law Centres Federation. My encounter with technology has largely been through LAG though I first became aware of its impact with word processing and related administrative support at Rochdale where it allowed the freeing up of resources.
Our latest project, about which I am very excited, is mypay.london. This is still under construction but you can see the website to get an idea of what we are doing. This is in a different field but it follows a pilot project in housing law and I have tried to use the lessons learnt from it. For that, I went to the Netherlands and talked to the people behind the Rechtwijzer. The problem was the cost. We just could not afford the Rechtwijzer package. I came away with the strong view that you could do this sort of thing much more cheaply. It should not be as expensive as it seemed at that time. But we progressed that idea through to a pilot with a partner, Ferret Information Systems which has been involved in digital applications to social security since the late 1980s. We went through the process of using sprints and agile methodology to develop decision trees on different types of residential occupancy. But, we took the idea as yet no further than as a proof of concept.
Employment law was already a problem even before legal aid cuts removed assistance in this area. Many cases involve small but important sums of money for people. Economically, it is difficult to make this work pay on an commercial basis. We pulled together a number organisations willing to help us with the start-up funding – with the bulk from Trust for London, one of whose priorities is tackling low pay in London. London organisations will be able to use the program at no cost. Out of London, we hope to license it on the basis of a small subscription. We intended to provide the service via a dedicated app. However, in a focus group through the independent workers union. Its members were completely hostile to the idea. They shot it down in flames. They did not want to incur the cost of a download. They wanted to be able to use free wifi to get onto a website. So, we produced a website and ditched the idea of an app.
Chatbots using guided pathways are clearly the next step in the use of the net to provide accessible information. But, low pay illustrates the problems. It does not lend itself to their use. The pathways are too complicated and things like time limits keep raising their heads. You have to be very careful and very precise to avoid any potential liability in negligence. No one has definitively sorted out the legal position on digitally provided wrong advice. Artificial intelligence might help but frankly the start up cost is presently enormous. People now talking about quality marks and regulation. I want to see competition not regulation. I don’t trust the motives of government or publicly funded bodies getting involved in this area.
I think the overall message is that technology can be very helpful both for advisers and end users. And we are using it as much as we can. But, advisers still want paper sources of information: end users need personal assistance with technology. A lot of people need someone on the phone or face to face at some stage in the resolution of their problem. But technology has fantastic possibilities if we can get the resources for it.
Steve Hynes is director of the Legal Action Group