What role does technology have in making justice accessible to more people in need?
We’ve heard a lot about “disruption” of late with new products revolutionising everything from catching a cab to managing our savings. It’s safe to say, the legal world is due a digital shake-up. Indeed, not only is automation planning to pour your pints and play your video games, it may one day handle your legal affairs too.
As with most things, it is starting out small, but the corporate legal world seems to have established the right mix of resources, expertise and demand to pioneer new tech of this kind. In the last year we’ve seen investment in legal tech increase by more than 700% – a record-high for the emerging sector – equating to $1.6 billion.
At first glance, the big winners of this investment aren’t that exciting; e-signatures, workflow optimisation tools, evidence collection or contract processing lack the wow-factor to grab headlines. However, these (and future) applications of automation and machine learning are positioning legal services firmly within the 4th industrial revolution and should make it easier for us to access the justice system.
In the UK and Wales, over half of adults have faced a legal problem in the last three years but only a third of people in need accessed suitable advice. Small businesses are not faring any better facing eight legal issues annually and only consulting with a solicitor or barrister on a tenth of these cases,. There was a huge unmet legal need even before cuts to legal aid in 2012, but the The Law Society concluded that this has led to the exclusion of numerous people from accessing subsidised legal services, including children and the financially vulnerable. Reducing funding also meant fewer legal professionals working on legal aid cases and a sharp rise in people representing themselves in court.
How can corporate innovation benefit the underrepresented?
For starters, some of the corporate tools being developed will be directly applicable to the work of social welfare advisers and pro bono lawyers. Most non-corporate providers are priced-out of these tools plus these tools may need tailoring for non-corporate uses as often they have not been designed with them in mind, but where there is a will there is a way. The Jeanie Project, for instance, found a way of licensing the KIM Technologies virtual assistant platform from EY Riverview Law. With the backing of the Legal Education Foundation, they are now tailoring the platform to enable community groups to efficiently connect people with legal needs to pro bono legal advisers.
Tools like these can also help pro bono providers to serve more people in the same amount of their limited time by freeing them up from unnecessary manual processes. We are a very long way off from seeing saturation of competition in the premium marketplace, but that could create the opportunity to establish businesses in the bigger, albeit less profitable, market of customer-facing legal services. We may not need to wait until then though, with socially and customer service motivated entrepreneurs concurrently developing ideas for consumer facing services alongside the development of corporate legal tech. We could also expect to see a trickle-down of the tools designed for large corporates to consumers as they become more readily available and embedded in standard legal practice.
Access to the system is one thing, but what if you don’t even know if your problem is a legal one? Only a quarter of issues are correctly identified as being of a legal nature; in nearly half the cases people are unaware of their choice of legal service providers5. Technology could help with self-diagnosis: understanding whether an issue is a legal problem and making us aware of our rights or obligations. The logical next step would be to connect us with the right solution, like an adviser, court gateway or a bespoke app.
When it comes to direct-to-consumer apps, we’re already seeing simple solutions like MyPay.London assisting Londoners experiencing problems with their pay from employment, or various PIP (Personal Independence Payment) appeal tools. The ambition is to enhance solutions of this kind with cutting-edge AI.
One tech solution could be to have people describe their problem in their own words whilst an AI translates it into ‘legal speak’, compiles documents and performs other high-skilled tasks which are usually undertaken by lawyers. Among the companies working towards this is Legal Utopia. At the time of writing, its ‘Legal Problem Engine’ is a few months away from launching a natural language processing system trained to process plain English to identify the legal nature of someone’s problem and offer a legal diagnosis.
Are tech powered legal services affordable?
Digital solutions are great at reaching scale and cutting costs, but there’s more to it. Legal tech allows for unbundling of legal processes into individual services that can be self-managed (with digital assistance) like signposting or filling in forms, and other services that are normally handled by a lawyer. This reduces the time and money spent on a professional. Moreover, automation enables lawyers to predict workloads and therefore they could fix the price of services rather than charge clients per hour.
Fixed pricing is key to allow customers to anticipate expenses, compare providers and make it transparent what they are actually paying for. Currently, in legal services, people struggle to choose a provider and market competition feels lacking. Consequently, most people do not believe that professional legal advice is worth the money or at all affordable5,. Luckily, there are providers out there already that seek to make digital, unbundled and affordable legal services a reality like Rocket Lawyer or Legal Zoom.
Clearly, technology has a role to play in making justice accessible to more people in need and things are happening to accelerate this. HM Courts & Tribunals Service is investing £1 billion to reform its systems with the aim of bringing new technology and modern ways of working into the courtroom. The Ministry of Justice has created a £5 million innovation fund to promote new ways in which legal support and advice can be delivered remotely through digital means.
Similarly, Innovate UK has also launched a £20 million Next Generation Services fund to empower a whole range of services, including legal, with cutting edge digital technologies like AI and data analytics. Last but not least, the Solicitors Regulatory Authority has teamed up with Nesta Challenges to launch the Legal Access Challenge prize to see how a proactive regulatory approach can support innovation which makes legal services more accessible. The competition is incentivising innovative technology solutions that will help individuals and SMEs to better understand and resolve their legal problems.
Legal technology appears to be reaching a tipping point. Within years, we should expect more people to claim their rights and feel in control of their legal matters at the push of a button. Far from putting lawyers out of a job, the innovations in the sector will be an invaluable toolbox for legal practitioners, opening the sector to those who are at present excluded from the system altogether.