Insight

Apps, digital filing and online dispute resolution – here’s how tech is changing law

Not enough British people have access to legal expertise – just one in three individuals with a legal problem speaks to an expert of any kind, and only one in ten individuals or small businesses gets advice from a solicitor or barrister, according to research by the Legal Services Board and the MOJ. With around half of adults having a legal need in the last three years, millions of people are not currently getting the legal support they need. Technology could help, with guided pathways providing tailored information, automation filling out paperwork, and online dispute resolution tools supporting less adversarial approaches to resolving problems.

Legal structures sit at the heart of modern society, but access to a lawyer isn’t always guaranteed.  The spread of digital technologies not only makes life easier for solicitors, thanks to automating aspects of document review, but can offer guidance and support to individuals and small businesses working their way through complex processes, such as writing a will, arranging custody of children, and registering a business. Such solutions offer tailored support in identifying a problem and guidance on how to resolve it, by helping gather and manage information and evidence as well as assisting with the creation and filing of documents — but also by avoiding expensive legal solutions via online dispute resolution.

JustFix.nyc focuses on housing issues, helping tenants with evidence collection. The New York-based non-profit has developed two free web apps, one to notify landlords of necessary repairs and the other to respond to eviction notices. Rather than muddling through paperwork, users can click through digital forms on their phones. “90% of tenants don’t have legal representation, but 90% of landlords do,” says co-founder Georges Clement. “There’s a huge imbalance.”

Screenshot of the JustFix app

“90% of tenants don’t have legal representation, but 90% of landlords do. There’s a huge imbalance,” says JustFix.nyc co-founder Georges Clement.

The idea behind JustFix.nyc was to help tenants who may not have legal representation to build stronger cases by better organising their paperwork and evidence. “We were observing them coming in with a stack of documents and presenting photos… just by swiping through pictures on their phone. The judge wasn’t able to take that as evidence,” he says. That informal organisation of information was making it harder for tenants to get a good result, with some claims dismissed entirely. With JustFix.nyc’s web app, the appropriate photos and documents are uploaded and organised, giving tenants an evidence packet to bring to court that’s similar to what a lawyer would prepare. “There’s a huge opportunity here in terms of levelling the playing field,” says Clement.

In Canada, the local Legal Services Society runs MyLawBC, a digital platform that supports document assembly with a guided pathway, a process that walks users through questions and options one by one, eventually leading to  documents to help build wills and work through paperwork for family separations, alongside a dialogue tool letting one party easily communicate with the other side to avoid a trip to court. Improving access to legal expertise was one motivation behind the project, but there was another. “We were aware that people are very overwhelmed by the amount of information they find on the internet, and don’t really know where to begin,” says Sherry MacLennan, VP of Public Legal Information and Applications. “We were very interested in developing something that was action oriented.”

MyLawBC's will-writing form

“We were aware that people are very overwhelmed by the amount of information they find on the internet, and don’t really know where to begin,” says Sherry MacLennan, VP of Public Legal Information and Applications at MyLawBC

DIYLaw was set up to help entrepreneurs in Nigeria register their businesses and protect their intellectual property even if they can’t get to the capital Lagos, by helping them understand their legal options and offering tailored document assembly tools. “We found during the course of our work that most entrepreneurs carry out their businesses without formalising them or doing the basics to protect themselves and this was mainly because they found legal services out of reach, in terms of cost and accessibility,” explains co-founder Funkola Odeleye. “Putting these services online have made legal services more accessible.”

Costs can also limit access. Mark Edwards senior vice president for EMEA at Rocket Lawyer says the legal services website aims to directly address the financial gap in the US, UK and across Europe. “We help small businesses and families, who would otherwise find quality legal help to be too costly, to solve legal issues by driving down the price of legal services,” says Edwards.

The Rocket Lawyer website offers members legal advice via digital forms as well as document assembly, guiding them step-by-step to create everything from a shareholders’ agreement to rental deposit deed, bill of sale or separation agreements. “For example, we help family members make their wills, small businesses create policies to make their businesses legally compliant, and larger companies with bespoke, fixed-price contract drafting and legal advice,” says Edwards.

Rocket Lawyer letter of intent

“Rocket Lawyer helps small businesses and families, who would otherwise find quality legal help to be too costly, to solve legal issues by driving down the price of legal services,” says Mark Edwards, senior vice president for EMEA at Rocket Lawyer.

Of course, paperwork is often the beginning of a legal process, not the end. While Rocket Lawyer is designed to be easy to use, lawyers are available to answer quick questions via a dedicated online messaging system; if further help is needed, the legal team is available at a discount for members.

Another section of the law that’s moved online is dispute resolution — and it was spurred in part by arguments about purchases on eBay, the online auction and selling site. In the mid-1990s, Colin Rule founded online dispute resolution (ODR) platform Modria to help eBay resolve such disputes, eventually helping in 60 million cases annually. Two years ago, software developer Tyler Technologies bought Modria, shifting the focus from ecommerce to access to justice.

Modria screenshot

“ODR opens the door for people to be able to participate in the judicial process without taking time away from a job or family responsibilities by being able to respond when it is convenient for them,” says Jamie Gillespie, General Manager for Online Dispute Resolutions at Tyler Technologies.

ODR is an organised method for discussing disputes online, facilitating complaints and responses as all parties negotiate a resolution. It’s useful as meeting face-to-face isn’t always easy, with schedule conflicts and the need to travel, and it is not always necessary anyway to help resolve some legal situations. “This opens the door for people to be able to participate in the judicial process without taking time away from a job or family responsibilities by being able to respond when it is convenient for them,” says Jamie Gillespie, General Manager for Online Dispute Resolutions at Tyler Technologies. “Also, some people have a fear of the judicial system, and this limits their exposure to the things they fear.” ODR helps reduce time to resolution in half, without raising costs for courts, the company says.

No wonder the idea has appeal, and it’s used to process small-claims disputes in Texas, removing the need for residents to travel upwards of 30 miles to attend court, as well as for custody cases in Las Vegas, Nevada, and by building regulators in New Zealand, he says.

MyLawBC is set to add Modria ODR later this year, says MacLellan. “We’ve been working the last year to configure a platform focusing on parenting issues,” she says. Right now, the MyLawBC website has a dialogue tool for negotiating separation agreements, but is looking to extend that to include online dispute resolution. This is particularly necessary in BC, as the Canadian province has been hit by funding cutbacks to legal aid. “We’ve got the most limited legal aid for family services in the country,” she says. “Essentially, people have to be experiencing family violence, or have a very real threat that their children are about to be abducted, before we can give them a lawyer.” The hope is that the free-to-use ODR platform can help families that don’t meet that coverage criteria to more quickly work through the process to get stability back in their lives. By preventing such issues from escalating, tools like these help reduce the burden on legal systems by avoiding escalations that lead to court, as well as reducing the financial and emotional impact on families.

Whilst the above organisations offer encouraging examples of how digital technologies can help more people to get the legal support they need, there are still very few such examples — and more ideas are needed to help more people and their businesses get the legal expertise they need. That’s one reason why the SRA and Nesta have teamed up on the Legal Access Challenge, which is now open for applications, looking for technologies such as guided pathways, document automation tools, online dispute resolution tools and artificial intelligence to help improve access to legal services.

To find out more, visit the Apply page.

Nicole Kobie, Freelance Journalist