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Public sector

Access to justice is more than a Google search

Nayeem Syed

20 Oct 2016

It has been generally accepted for some time that the legal system hasn’t worked well for those that can’t afford professional legal representation (the unrepresented), or even those that just about can (the underrepresented). Legislative frameworks, technical systems and even procedural rules can’t be said to have been designed with users in mind. Access to justice can be hard to achieve.

It is, of course a complex interconnected ecosystem. The various industry interests, including professional associations, law enforcement bodies and legislating politicians, have had little motivation to drive modernization. Perhaps they even see a lack of change as useful tradition and therefore a virtue. But far too many people remain deprived of their full legal rights or otherwise face too much stress when in contact with the legal system and applying the law generally.

The key reason that this is no longer acceptable is that there is a clear way forward. As technologists were reinventing every other profession and industry, it became clear that much of the work that lawyers traditionally perform could be substantially displaced as well. Automation and technology-assisted professionals will clearly speed up analysis, but also enable the redesign of many legacy systems and processes. Crucially, they will drive down costs.

Google Scholar now provides access to a wide range of legal materials. Attempting to make the law more searchable is, of course, laudable. But will a layperson want to invest the time needed to learn how to use it well enough to find the right results, particularly in times of great need, risk or stress – precisely the times people need legal advice? However, what is undeniable is that this is the direction of travel for the profession.

Killer apps

Simpler, cheaper and faster needn’t mean worse. However, it may mean that the tens of millions who are currently unable to afford good legal advice can understand their rights and obligations as citizens, and improve their families’ resilience to everyday legal anxieties: debt recovery, divorce and child protection, employment rights and benefits and consumer rights.

A killer legal app can be highly successful and yet simple and one-dimensional: recently, a law student untrained in coding developed an app to challenge parking tickets. It overturned 250,000 tickets in twelve months. There are many other everyday legal issues which could just as easily be addressed by single-issue, self-service applications. These could exponentially improve access to justice.

Addressing the currently unrepresented will expand the market, and is arguably where investment will earn the greatest return, pound for pound. For society and the economy, legal inclusion and access to justice mean more equality and stability; critical for entrepreneurship, and overall social and economic development.

Additionally, there are significant opportunities for lawyers and technologists who understand the power of the art of the possible to work together in addressing the underrepresented. They simply need to consider how to apply their legal knowledge and skills to unaddressed segments, and work out how technology could help them provide legal services which are better value for money. Identifying which use cases are most common and important to the underrepresented – and focusing on designing solutions that they can afford – will help guide the right choices.

A force multiplier for good

Technology also has enormous power to reduce the fragmentation and inefficiencies which have weighed the legal system down and limited the effective administration of justice. These include outdated scheduling and record keeping systems, as well as poor alignment and communication between agencies. For example, organising legal analysis and fact-patterns so that they can be addressed with systems-based approaches will help to create more of the legal consistency and certainty we all need. Automation will assist lawyers in their analysis and reduce the number of exceptional situations which take more time to resolve. It will transform high-volume, low-skill advisory work, and also support more complex, high-end legal analysis. Applications like analytics and data visualisations can help in reshaping entire practice areas. Big data scientists have shown how it is possible to routinely surface insights from unstructured data to reveal insights simply not achievable by the even the most enquiring humans minds.

Technologists can also empower other industry actors keen to modernise their operations and improve access to justice by embedding emerging technologies into their future strategies. In this way, software becomes a force multiplier for good. Courts and regulators can finally simplify their processes, and provide more self-service applications to enable more citizens to access the court system. Law schools can ensure business strategy and technology are part of the curriculum, and professional associations can make these skills compulsory for admission. Online learning will enable law schools to experiment with combined courses and more modern modules. MIT has made large sections of its world-class instruction available online for free: why can’t law faculties reduce the cost of a legal education and increase the aggregate legal competence of the general public?

Good lawyers can automate more of what they do, and technologists are well placed to help. The motivation is simply this: the industry can finally increase legal inclusion and access to justice, and in doing so, expand the legal market for everyone.

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