Leaving the Table: out of the game

For those of a certain age, Leonard Cohen has provided, in a hackneyed phrase, the ‘soundtrack to our lives’. When young, we took Chinese tea and oranges with Suzanne and muttered ‘So long’ to Marianne. Now, older if little wiser, we ultimately get to share one of the sentiments from his very last record: ’I’m leaving the table. I’m out of the game’. 

This post is both a valediction and a call to arms. It is the formal end to the attempt from 2012 to produce uptodate summaries of what is happening to technology and access to justice around the world. On your behalf, I have scoured twitter, websites and assorted leads to report on how agencies, individuals and institutions in the field of access to justice have developed technology. I have selflessly – and without regard to the climate implications – attended conferences in different countries and continents to pontificate on this topic and to learn from others. And now this is over.

The reasons are largely personal. My first published work on legal aid was published by the Workers Education Association in 1974. I have been writing about the topic for a long time. Anyone who has followed the decline of the Ministry of Justice over the last decade since the Conservative Government arrived in 2010, cannot but be depressed. Courts were shut without regard to the consequences. Budgets were slashed. The quality of Ministers – who have included Chris Grayling, Dominic Raab and Liz Truss – has been, to put it mildly, uninspiring. Access to Justice – on which the UK was once a leader – withers on the vine. Within our own country (at least for now), the Scots put us to shame.

Over the world, this may be a time of consolidation – or even retreat – on technology in this field. The Legal Education Foundation, an early funder in the field and of this blog (for which, heartfelt thanks), thought so. It removed an express mention of technology from its priorities in its strategic plan a couple of years ago, commenting that ‘Information technology is not a magic bullet, but it has an important role to play – especially the less “glamorous” essential infrastructure.’

There are other signs of a general feeling that technology is retreating from the high tide of supporting optimism that it might transform delivery. The Rechwijzwer itself, still a towering Dutch achievement, has been severely cut back. Cooperative Legal Services in England and Wales has perhaps symbolically pulled back its ambitions as the world-leading online legal service provider and is now largely an adjunct of the Co-op’s funeral business. Last  week, the legal aid authority in British Columbia announced it was ceasing its funding of MyLawBC directly spawned by the team behind the Rechtwijzer – and illustrating the use of online digital pathways in the giving of information. 

And yet … Who would argue that technology will not over the next decade or so transform all our worlds with little chance of an exemption for legal services? The interesting point about back office – or ‘less glamorous infrastructure’- services is when they thrust themselves to the front and start changing delivery. Look for example at the use of video for outreach where reform of the technology causes reform of structure and content (see, for example the work of the People’s Law School in British Columbia). Concepts of legal design are transforming the presentation of information and the formulation of its approach (see the work of Margaret Hagan). Video, data collection and geolocation are impacting on how evidence can be stored and transmitted from housing cases to human rights cases (JustFix.NYC, Project Callipso, Bellingcat). Exciting moves have been made into giving a dynamic to unbundled assistance and digitally helping people through the legal process that they face beyond giving static advice (Upsolve, Citizenshipworks). ‘Blended services’ are developing mixing different approaches within one organisation (Hello Divorce) or between a number (Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors). We can see the beginnings of the use of artificial intelligence for referral and problem identification (Justice Connect’s Gateway Project, the work of Suffolk Law School). 

The lessons so far might be just that change takes longer than early enthusiasts think and that technology is not a thing in itself but must be deeply embedded in service delivery.

The problems of access to justice and the use of technology are universal. And there is evident benefit in bringing experience together. The mighty Rechtwijzer was itself a Dutch-US collaboration. JusticeConnect in Australia has developed a number of ideas first trialled in the US. The best annual conference on the topic in the world – held by the Legal Services Corporation – has steadily increased its overseas presenters and, indeed, back in the day, hosted members of the Rechtwijzer team. 

So, there is a real value in the collection of information and encouraging the cross-jurisdictional debate on technology and access to justice. Someone or some institution should take over the mantle of publicly leading on this. All you need is a blog or a website; a twitter or other social media account; a commitment to the topic and an ability to report on, and assess, developments. You could be in any country in the world. You could be in any form – individual, law school, legal aid institution, not for profit provider. I extend the baton. Please take it.

And, just as a personal footnote, those distressed by the ending of this source of my writing should take heart. My pieces continue to appear as a monthly column in the New Law Journal, a LexisNexis publication. These have wider subject matter – the last two were on reforming the role of the Attorney General and the advantages of regulation in third party litigation funding. No doubt, the impact of technology and the failures of the Ministry of Justice will appear soon.

And to end with two very domestically British (and probably incomprehensible to a wider audience) references to counterbalance that of the opening Canadian: ‘So long and thanks for all the fish’.

And – maybe, just maybe – ‘Hasta La Vista, Baby.’

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