The use of technology to widen access to justice
Opportunity overview for the Legal Access Challenge
This report is a summarised version of the full research report produced for the SRA. The report was produced following a research and design phase to explore the access to justice issues, the potential for digital technology solutions to help address these, the barriers to these solutions emerging, and based on the findings to recommend a challenge prize design. As part of the research and design we have spoken with over 50 stakeholders, hosted a webinar with international experts and chaired a roundtable discussion to gather insights.
There is huge unmet legal need affecting a large majority of individuals and small businesses in England and Wales. This represents both a lack of access to justice for many people but also a large under-developed market for accessible and affordable legal services. Technology can help tackle this problem by reducing costs, freeing up lawyers to spend time on tasks where their skills are most needed, and enabling people to have greater control of resolving their legal problems.
Legaltech is currently primarily focused on the more profitable commercial law sector, where there is intense competition among a relatively small number of players for highly lucrative business from (largely) corporate clients. Market forces have to date resulted in little focus on digital technologies that directly support people to resolve their legal needs. However, it is direct to people lawtech solutions which hold promise to make legal services more accessible and affordable. While AI and more advanced technologies are proving their value in commercial law, there is still ample lower hanging fruit for consumer solutions in the form of readily available technologies. Unfortunately, the latter faces barriers for adoption resulting from interlinked factors including a fragmented market, deeply ingrained ways of working, lack of awareness and trust in alternatives, and challenges in developing sustainable business models.
There is growing interest in the use of tech to tackle unmet legal need, for example with work by HMCTS to digitalise the courts’ system, and plans announced by the MOJ to fund technology developments aiming to support early resolution of legal problems. But outside of commercial law, legal services are still at a very early stage in their digital transformation. The Legal Access Challenge aims to demonstrate the potential of new kinds of digital products and services in the legal sector to potential future funders, innovators and the legal profession.
The Challenge will seek out and accelerate technology-driven innovations which directly help individuals and SMEs to understand and resolve their legal problems in more affordable and accessible ways. The aim is not to replace lawyers but to make better use of lawyers’ time, and to incentivise a new generation of digital services making legal help accessible and affordable for the majority.
Purpose of this work
Growing the access to justice market
The availability of digitally-delivered legal services that complement the expertise of human professionals is expected to have a positive impact on widening access to justice. The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) in partnership with Nesta’s Challenge Prize Centre seeks to accelerate the emergence of new kinds of digital solutions that demonstrate how the large underdeveloped legal services market for small businesses and consumers could be grown.
The Legal Access Challenge has been made possible by a grant from the £10m Regulators’ Pioneer Fund launched by The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and administered by Innovate UK. The fund enables UK regulators to develop innovation-enabling approaches to emerging technologies and unlock the long-term economic opportunities identified in the government’s modern Industrial Strategy.
The Challenge will help to chart the state of play and barriers to deployment of emerging legal technologies and will grow the community with a shared interest in developing new digital technology solutions to tackle the challenge of accessing justice. Deep engagement with the innovators participating in this project will enable the SRA to develop its proactive, anticipatory stance to regulation in this emerging field. This will have lasting benefits beyond the completion of the Challenge.
Market forces have to date resulted in little focus on digital technologies that directly support people to resolve their legal needs. However, it is direct to people lawtech solutions which hold promise to make legal services more accessible and affordable.
Adding value through a Challenge Prize
The challenge prize methodology seeks to raise the profile of new ways of providing legal support which hold promise to widen access to justice, and to accelerate development of specific technology-driven innovations which directly help individuals and small businesses to understand and resolve their legal problems in more affordable and accessible ways.
The competitive nature of the initiative seeks to recognise innovators designing the most impactful solutions and support the development of a portfolio of lawtech innovations. The aim is to accelerate the market entry of promising solutions through a mix of development grants and a final prize, expert support, interactions with regulatory and governmental bodies, and other profile raising opportunities.
The Legal Access Challenge also aims to develop a community of people and organisations with a shared interest in implementing the use of technology to boost the legal services sector. This collaborative environment should enable key stakeholders to influence and inform the changes necessary for wider adoption of digital solutions in the legal service market that will put more choice into the hands of individuals and small businesses whilst making sure they are adequately protected.
Overview of activities
Activities undertaken during the research and design phase include:
- Desk-based research reviewing existing reports, articles and websites
- Interviews with 50+ stakeholders to conduct research, and later to seek feedback on iterative prototypes of the challenge prize design. Stakeholders included advice sector and not-for-profit representatives, law firms, commentators, legaltech firms, accelerators, regulatory and public authorities and academics
- International engagement to understand the status of the use of technology to widen access to justice in the US, Canada and Australia. Questionnaires were sent to 11 experts, who then later participated in a webinar
- Nesta chaired a roundtable at an event organised by Legal Geek focused on how technology can improve access to justice. This event served to test emerging conclusions
This report is a summarised version of the full research report produced for the SRA.
Defining access to justice
Different definitions of access to justice
Access to justice means different things to different people. Most narrowly it can be referred to as access to lawyers and courts. However, in broader definitions the following elements emerge as common themes:
- Understanding your legal rights
- Being able to exercise these rights
- Obtaining a just outcome
In its fullest, successfully accessing justice is subject to understanding the problem and your rights, making an informed decision on the best way of resolving the problem and arriving at a just resolution. The latter may be facilitated by mutual communication, third-party mediation or through the court system.
Defining access to justice
One negative outcome of people seeking to address legal problems without accessing adequate professional support is that more problems proceed directly to court rather than being resolved earlier through alternative and less resource-intensive approaches. This is a result of those without advice not being aware of alternative options where these may be appropriate.
Similarly to the three themes in the definition of access to justice outlined above, the Online Dispute Resolution Advisory Council highlights the importance of three factors in accessing justice:
- Dispute avoidance
- Dispute containment
- Dispute resolution
In its report from February 2015, the Council advocated a greater emphasis on avoiding and containing disputes, employing a preventative philosophy so that fewer cases need to be resolved through the courts.
Taking all of the above rationale into account, this initiative chooses to follow a definition of ‘accessing justice’ in which:
“people and SMEs have the means to understand their legal problems, are empowered to exercise their legal rights and obtain a just resolution at the earliest opportunity.”
Some of the principles which might support this include:
- Accessible and user-friendly services
- Affordable legal advice and services
- An integrated system, where different aspects of the legal system link together seamlessly to create an effective route to justice for all who engage in the system
- A system which facilitates the earliest and least stressful resolution possible whilst still obtaining a just outcome
- A range of services proportionate to people’s varying legal needs, encompassing for example automated tools supporting simpler problems or stages of a legal process, appropriate assistance for those who need it, and bespoke professional advice for more complex problems or needs
Barriers to accessing justice
There is huge unmet legal need in England and Wales affecting not just the worst off in society but also a large majority of individuals and small businesses. This represents both a lack of access to justice for many people but also a large under-developed market for accessible and affordable legal services for individuals and small businesses.
Over half of adults in England and Wales faced a legal problem in the last three years, and yet only 1 in 3 people with a legal problem seek advice or assistance. The other 2 in 3 instead deal with the problem alone or with the help of friends and family, or do nothing. The average small business faces 8 legal issues every year, but only 1 in 10 takes advice from a solicitor or barrister, with small businesses being more likely to approach an accountant than a solicitor,.
There are a number of reasons why legal services in the UK and Wales are not working well for the needs of individual consumers and small businesses:
- the real or perceived costs to find and use legal services are too high
- lack of awareness about whether a problem is of a legal nature and what the options might be to resolve it, including who could help
- difficulty in comparing providers on price, quality and speed of service
- insufficient competition and innovation in direct-to-consumer legal services
- limited trust in different types of legal service providers
- lack of knowledge and confidence to navigate legal services
- delays in addressing problems decreasing the chances of resolution and increasing the overall time it takes to resolve an issue
Value addition of tech-driven solutions
Technology can play an important role in tackling the problems of unmet legal need through use of automation to increase affordability, freeing up legal professionals to spend time on the tasks where they can add most value, and by enabling individuals and small businesses to take more control of resolving their legal problems and the services they consume in doing so.
For customers, technology can support with:
- Communication Using digital interfaces to make access to legal help near instant and easier to comprehend, for example by using everyday language
- Self-diagnosis Supporting evaluation of problems by identifying whether problems have a legal recourse and helping customers to understand their rights and the options available to resolve the problem
- Triage Guiding people to sources of support within the legal system, such as automated tools, local advice providers, solicitors and the court system
- Self-help or guidance Helping to navigate the chosen process and facilitating the preparation of evidence and legal documentation
- Empowerment Users may be able to choose which elements of their legal journey can be self-managed and which need to be addressed by a legal professional
- Affordability Reducing legal labour time through automation and supporting increasing access to justice by reducing the financial barriers involved
- Transparency Helping to demystify the legal process and improve the flow of information, for example by staying up to date with the progress of a case
- Efficiency Reducing transaction and response time, supporting addressing legal problems at the earliest opportunity and preventing unnecessary costs and/or detrimental impact on people’s wellbeing
For providers, technology can support with:
- Productivity Using digital streamlining, automation and predictive power to manage larger volumes of work more quickly while maintaining a good quality of services
- Restructuring Facilitating changes to practices and business models to allow for changing fee structures such as unbundling and fixed fees
- Interoperability Creating open standards for organising and securely recording data, including ways for public and private entities to inform one another’s processes, acquire and/or validate that data
Emerging technologies include guided pathways, automated document assembly, online dispute resolution, expert systems, NLP, chatbots and information and entity extraction.
The landscape of legal technologies
Legal technology has been growing in profile in recent years, with investment in legaltech startups crossing the $1billion mark in 2018. To date, these startups have been primarily focused on supporting the work of legal professionals, particularly in the area of commercial law where the potential financial gains are highest. There has been very little focus on digital technologies directly supporting individuals and small businesses to solve their legal issues, yet it is direct to consumer lawtech solutions which hold promise to make legal services accessible and affordable to far greater numbers of people.
Some of the emerging technology solutions which could enable improvements in the provision of accessible, affordable legal help include:
- Guided pathways Tools that guide users through a decision tree by asking users a series of questions and offering pre-defined outcomes based on specific responses
- Automated document assembly Document assembly tools automate the creation of legal documents or completion of court forms based on relevant information
- Online dispute resolution (ODR) Online tools that allow for resolving consumer or civil law disputes without escalating to the courts
- Artificial intelligence (AI) AI is an umbrella term for a variety of digital systems including machine learning and big data approaches to train and optimise their performance at tasks normally requiring human intelligence. In a legal context, it involves problem-solving capacity including data extraction, complex decision making, or operational planning. Some of the most widely used applications include:
- Expert systems Expert systems in the legal domain use rule or knowledge-based approaches and an inference engine to provide the user with expert knowledge on specific subjects
- Natural language processing (NLP) A group of AI applications for sophisticated manipulation of text, understanding language (like speech recognition) and generation of language (like text-to-speech)
- Chatbots The top layer of another application (such as guided pathways or automated document assembly) that mimics human interaction and provides an interface between the customer and the rest of the application. The sophistication of chatbots varies
- Information and entity extraction A technique for automatically extracting information from documents and classifying relevant information into pre-defined categories (like customer details, time and monetary values, etc.)
There is a plethora of other types of technologies that both lawyers and consumers use today such as static websites, live chat functionality, e-learning, project management tools, etc. Although we will see increased use of these widely known digital solutions going forward, we do not consider these applications as part of the emerging technologies specific to the better provision of legal support.
In the area of commercial law where data volumes and resources are greater, AI and advanced technologies are a core part of many of the emerging solutions. However, as a result of the current technological deficit in consumer-facing legal services, there is significant benefit to be gained from the application of readily available technologies such as rules-based expert systems, automation tools and online platforms.
Barriers to adopting legal technologies
There are some significant barriers underlying the slow progress in the adoption of digital technologies in people-facing legal services. These include:
- fragmentation of the legal sector serving individuals and small businesses with many smaller law firms, which individually have lower capacity to invest in developing innovative digital technologies, as well as a lack of resources in the not-for-profit advice sector to implement new tools;
- lack of incentives to develop the next generation of legal services amongst some of the legal firms already serving individuals and small businesses, who may be cautious about business model disruptions;
- challenges in developing financially sustainable business models for consumer-facing lawtech products;
- lack of access to relevant data to train technologies on and develop new services;
- a potential lack of awareness and trust in new types of technology-driven services amongst customers and distributors, alongside a potential quality assurance gap for non-regulated services;
- and resulting difficulties for tech startups and innovators to secure investment to develop their solutions.
It is impossible to fully replace lawyers with technology as it currently stands. However, technology-driven tools can provide information and guidance in situations where no support from a lawyer is available, and can augment the work of lawyers through automation and platforms, thus reducing cost and increasing accessibility.
Cutting edge applications like machine learning, advanced chatbots powered by natural language processing or AI-driven expert systems have great potential to improve legal services. However, we believe that it is more likely that we will first see the wider adoption of simpler digital technology improvements that can have significant impact at a fraction of the investment and development complexity. This will likely happen alongside the development of more advanced solutions by a handful of innovators who have been successful in navigating the challenges of accessing data and sufficient funding.
The Legal Access Challenge will seek solutions which directly improve the support provided to the public, as opposed to indirectly improving support through technology which reduces costs and inefficiencies within practitioners that typically serve individuals and small businesses. We believe that to meet the scale of the underserved market we need to see real innovation in the way that legal services are delivered as opposed to incremental efficiency gains in current ways of working.
It is impossible to fully replace lawyers with technology as it currently stands. However, technology-driven tools can provide information and guidance in situations where no support from a lawyer is available and can augment the work of lawyers.
The underlying problem of unmet legal need is large and the barriers are challenging, but there is increasing interest and activity in this area. One of the particular considerations in designing the Legal Access Challenge is therefore how to have maximum impact on a significant problem in a busy system using the relatively modest financial resources available. With the growing interest in how technology can widen access to justice, the Challenge is well placed to demonstrate the potential of a new generation of digital products and services in the legal sector to potential future funders, innovators and the legal profession. During the challenge prize process, we also aim to build a community with the knowledge, skills and motivation to drive forward progress, including building connections between the SRA and the innovator community.
The Legal Access Challenge will seek out and accelerate technology-driven innovations which directly help individuals and small businesses to understand and resolve their legal problems in more affordable and accessible ways.
We believe that digital technology solutions can fundamentally improve access to justice and may ultimately form a new generation of digital products and services in the legal sector making legal help accessible and affordable for the majority.