A technologically advanced ‘knowledge platform’, crowdfunding, pro bono legal services, a new not for profit charity and the engagement of grassroots community organisations make a tempting package. And this is exactly what is promised by the Jeanie Project in a pilot project designed to test ‘a system which puts supportive people (in local charities and community groups) on the front line, equips them and the client with groundbreaking technology … to ask the right questions and direct the information collection, collates what is needed and makes the material available, easily and quickly, to experienced lawyers either directly or through brokerage.’
A unique element of this project is provided by the sheer breadth of its participants. At its core is the technology provided by KIM – an acronym for Knowledge, Intelligence, Meaning – developed by Riverview Law and provided under licence for free. KIM is, like IBM Watson, a programmable resource useable in a variety of different contexts. As its website put its, ‘Kim represents the next wave of AI-driven automation software that empowers knowledge workers with no IT programing experience to create systems that reflect how their work is actually performed, rather than comply with someone else’s idea of how it should be’.
KIM’s content will be provided by the Jeanie Project – the derivation of whose name is apparently provided by a play on ‘genie’ and, idiosyncratically, the name of a sister of former Law Society President Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, one of its founders. Jeanie’s other directors are Richard Miller, the Law Society’s head of legal aid, and Martin Barnes, head of LawWorks (once more comprehensibly known as the Solicitors Pro Bono Group). Jeanie’s contribution will be led by Dr Simon Davey, a technology project consultant (or ‘catalyst’) whose initial time is being funded by the Legal Education Foundation (which – full disclaimer – also funds this website).
The project pilot will involve Toynbee Hall, a well established former university settlement based in the East End of London. It will begin with immigration though other scenarios involving areas of ‘poverty’ or ‘social welfare’ law – including debt and employment as well as family – have been developed. Lucy Scott Moncrieff expresses high hopes that it will expand into MPs surgeries (clearly a shrewd tactical move) and other civil society organisations. The theory is that the software will allow organisations to input their own specifically relevant data. Ms Scott Moncrieff says, ‘This is a way to make access to legal advice more fair, more equal and faster – and it’s beautifully simple.’
The simplicity – and functionality – will be tested over the next six months or so. If successful, bids for further funding can be made. The immediate crowdfunding target is to raise £7,500 by 9th August. As at this morning, £770 had been raised with 28 days to go. So, there will be a very public indication of whether the project is attractive enough to raise its own funding for the initial phase. The co-ordinator post that will be funded by the appeal is clearly vital in stitching together the various components of the project and in ensuring that the referrals get to the right place. The idea is that this will be a tool which can assist a worker with no legal knowledge but a degree of training, say at a Food Bank (now proliferating under our Government’s austerity policies), to identify a problem and allow the system to make a referral. Lawyers, operating pro bono and receiving the referral, will be able to assess cases at their desks without having to visit inconvenient locations at specific times. The hope that ‘this will also allow us to measure need’, says Ms Scott Moncrieff with an eye to the wider context of documenting the impact of legal aid cuts.
What is rather admirable about the project is its public exposure. We are going to know if it can raise the money. We are going to see the result of the pilot and whether KIM and its content can delivery the assistance needed. We are going to find out if pro bono lawyers really are willing to work from their desks to give assistance rather than participating more communally. And we are going to find out just how much human co-ordination is required to supplement technology. And we may also find out a little more about using triage referral mechanisms in non-legal, community-based organisations. So, Jeanie is out of the bottle and worth keeping an eye on.