Trickle down or drying out?
Technological innovation will only improve access to justice if lawtech initiatives are properly funded, says Alan Larkin
Some years ago, on a Friday evening pro bono consultation, a gentleman heaved seven ring binders onto the table between us. He had been representing himself for the last three years and now felt a judicial review was required. He was happy to leave the ring binders with me for the weekend so I could get up to speed and then advise him the following Monday.
He had thoughtfully prepared a ‘skeleton’ for the purpose of our meeting. Its 27 pages contained a creative blend of criminal and civil statutes, with lashings of tort, equitable principles and pre-Woolf Latin. His eyes were bright. Mine were not. I had two more people to see after him. “Equity. It’s a shield you know. Not a spear”, was all I could muster.
This was one of the encounters that seeded my later journey into technology and innovation: creating triage tools and other applications to help the public ask the right questions so we lawyers could sprint to the right answers. Which explains why I pitched up at the launch of the Legal Access Challenge in May, initiated by the SRA.
The intention is to encourage technology solutions for a legal services market in which only one in three individuals and one in ten small businesses with a legal problem get expert advice.
Affordability, or the perception of it, lies behind much of this unmet need. The audience at the launch was quite a mix, with a few established tech providers and the not-for-profit sector including legal advice centres, and some in private practice.
The SRA has its mitts on £250,000 from a pot of some £10m available to all the regulatory bodies in the UK.
I give the SRA credit for obtaining the funds and then launching a challenge that, in essence, is an attempt to tackle the pressing issue of access to justice. Sensibly, the SRA has asked Nesta (a charitable foundation dedicated to innovation) to run the challenge competition for it.
I have issues with the way the SRA increasingly frames our relationship with our clients in terms of consumption (price, availability, complaints) – which places the purchase of tins of beans on the same plane as an application to withdraw medical treatment for someone in a vegetative state. My example is, of course, too brutally simple, but so is the attempt to impose a wholly consumerist paradigm on the rule of law.
Speak to anyone involved in applying tech to legal problems and processes and they will admit: law is complicated.
Simply overlaying a consumer-friendly interface won’t cut it. Getting these things right takes years and I give further credit to the SRA for explicitly acknowledging this at the Legal Access Challenge launch.
It is a pity, though, that the challenge fund of £250,000 will only accommodate four successful applications each attracting £50,000, and then a final winner’s prize of £50,000.
This is to cover the whole of England and Wales, to find solutions both for individuals and SMEs. I’m probably not the only one to wish the fund could have been larger considering the huge savings gained by budget cuts to civil legal aid during the years of austerity.
Most tech money is being applied to pain points in high-end commercial legal practice: contract analysis for ultra-high value M&A rather than sustaining the bare bones of the few remaining law centres. There is a horrible inevitability to this outcome.
As Leonard Cohen sang: “Everybody knows the fight was fixed/ The poor stay poor, the rich get rich/That’s how it goes/ Everybody knows.”
One riposte to Cohen’s fiscal determinism is the trickle-down theory. Now discredited by economists, its echoes were heard in the discussion at the Legal Access Challenge launch. Could we wait for a digital trickle-down from the tech tables of the big legal firms to the bottom-feeders of the high street?
Waiting is not for me; and neither is a digital make do and mend approach. I’ll push on with tech innovation that precisely meets the needs of the family law client demographic. If technology is not fit for purpose then it’s just not fit – and £50,000 won’t fix it.
Alan Larkin is director of innovation and technology and a family law specialist at Family Law Partners familylawpartners.co.uk