Insight

Who are the innovators using tech to increase access to legal services

An overview of applications to the Legal Access Challenge

There is a large and stubborn legal gap in England and Wales, and this is a problem not only for the worst off in our society. Despite our world-class legal system and our status as a global hub for commercial law, six in ten people do not feel the legal system is set up for individuals and small businesses, with the vast majority wanting it to be easier to access justice.

This is a problem that deserves to be tackled, and earlier this year the Solicitors Regulation Authority partnered with Nesta Challenges to launch the Legal Access Challenge. The Challenge aims to make legal support more accessible and affordable for individuals and small businesses through technology, and to learn what the barriers are to these innovations achieving impact at scale. Applications closed on 11 August and the eight finalists were announced on 26 September.

With the finalists now announced and getting to work on their winning proposals, what can be learnt from the applications submitted to the Legal Access Challenge? This article aims to share some insights into who is using tech to make legal support more affordable and accessible, how they’re doing this and what might help this community of innovators to succeed.

Despite our world-class legal system, six in ten people do not feel the legal system is set up for individuals and small businesses.”

Who applied?

The Legal Access Challenge received 117 applications, surpassing expectations, and this prompted extra funding to be secured to double the number of finalists supported. The number of entries illustrates that there are many people and teams who want to make legal services work better, and indeed many who are already working to do so.

The teams applying came from across the UK and the world, with 16 applicants based outside the UK and the rest spread through the UK. Whilst solutions were required to benefit users in England & Wales, the issues which limit access to justice are experienced across the world and innovators from other regions can bring new ideas and experiences. In fact, one of the finalists – Resolve Disputes Online – is an international organisation with experience in various other countries. 

Applications were received from organisations (69 applications), partnerships of two or more organisations (14 applications), individuals (13 applications) and teams of individuals (21 applications). With 30% of applications from partnerships or teams of individuals, there was clear evidence of applicants teaming up to bring together different expertise, including legal, technical and design capabilities.

As you might expect from a competition focusing on access to justice, charities (13 applications) and social enterprises (7 applications) were represented among the lead applicants. However, over half of applications (66 applications) were received from commercial organisations, demonstrating the appetite among businesses to provide more accessible legal services whilst also targeting financial sustainability. Applications were also received from individuals (24 applications) and higher education institutions (6 applications), showing that solutions are coming from a broad range of different innovators.

37% of lead applicants were regulated, and 15% were regulated by the SRA. Some may be surprised that so many applicants to a legal sector competition are not regulated. However, with no requirement for legal services that do not constitute a reserved activity to be provided by a regulated individual or firm, many lawtech solutions are being developed by non-regulated organisations. Increasingly solicitors and law firms may interact more with this market, for example where tech-driven legal services are integrated with optional referral to a law firm providing advice from a solicitor. Longer-term, proven success by non-regulated firms may lead to wider adoption of similar tools and services by regulated firms. And forward-thinking law firms are already thinking this way, with 17 applications received from SRA regulated law firms proposing solutions to improve accessibility and affordability of legal services.

With 30% of applications from partnerships or teams of individuals, there was clear evidence of applicants teaming up to bring together different expertise, including legal, technical and design capabilities.”

What motivated the applicants to enter the Challenge?

The majority of applicants (86%) were motivated by the desire to have a positive social impact. This included those who have seen and been frustrated by the limitations of current options either personally or through the experiences of their clients, and legal professionals whose previous roles were not fulfilling the reasons why they became lawyers. Some of the comments spoke about recent cuts to legal aid, and the concentration of need and lack of access in areas of higher disadvantage. Other comments mentioned frustrations with the slow pace of technological development in lawtech and the potential value of tech to better support people underserved by traditional approaches. Some applicants were motivated by wanting to create user-centred legal services.

62% stated that the financial support offered by the Challenge is a motivating factor. Finalists receive a £50,000 equity-free grant and two final winners will receive a further £50,000 each in April 2020. Perhaps a reason why the financial support is so needed, even at relatively modest amounts, is that 27% of applicants commented that lawtech innovation aimed at widening access to justice is currently under-resourced and/or under-estimated. These applicants commented that digital transformation has enormous potential and that they are trying to get ahead and be at the forefront of tech development in consumer-facing legal services – an area which is seen as nascent but which could move fast.

Other common motivations for applying included opportunities for support in forming partnerships, elevated profile through participation in the Challenge, and opportunities to work with other innovators with shared aims.

Perhaps a reason why the financial support is so needed, even at relatively modest amounts, is that 27% of applicants commented that lawtech innovation aimed at widening access to justice is currently under-resourced and/or under-estimated.”

What kind of proposals did innovators apply with?

44% of applications were for solutions targeted at individuals, 18% for solutions targeted at small medium enterprises (SMEs) and 38% had applicability for both individuals and SMEs.

Many proposed solutions (51%) covered multiple different types of legal problems, perhaps indicative of the potential for tech-based solutions to be replicated across different legal areas. Examples of these included tailored guidance solutions covering multiple areas, legal marketplaces and search tools. Applications with a specific focus on a single type of problem represented a spread across different areas of law, with higher numbers of applications received for compliance and corporate governance (11%), social welfare and housing (10%), employment law (9%), family law (9%) and consumer rights and financial advice (9%).

The applications received also aimed to help users of their services in a range of different ways. Many of the proposals (50%) involved an element of tailored guidance, for example supporting users to understand their rights and the options available to them. Document automation featured in nearly a quarter of applications (24%), particularly in those aimed at supporting SMEs. 11% supported better collaboration and case management, often featuring online platforms to facilitate co-operation between multiple stakeholders. 9% of applications supported users to collect and present evidence for their issue. There was also a theme of proposals to create better links and signposting in the fragmented legal sector, with 8% of applications featuring forms of legal marketplaces to connect customers and legal providers, and 6% featuring triage proposals to signpost those needing support.

The Challenge sought proposals which could have a clear impact on unmet legal need, and which were accessible, intuitive and user-friendly for their intended users.”

What did applicants say they wanted support with?

Applicants were asked about the types of support that they would like from the Challenge. Three areas of support were most commonly cited. 

66% of applicants said they would like support accessing user focus groups and support with user testing. The Challenge sought proposals which could have a clear impact on unmet legal need, and which were accessible, intuitive and user-friendly for their intended users. Accordingly, the importance of user testing was reflected in applicants’ responses.

64% of applicants requested support with forming partnerships. The types of partnerships varied, ranging from partnerships within the legal community (for content creation and testing, for distribution, for provision of services), to advocacy and support groups, to other businesses with complementary technical or other capabilities.

62% requested support in overcoming regulatory barriers, with key themes around seeking clarity on the regulatory position for tech-based solutions and questions about data protection for solutions handling sensitive data.

What conclusions can we draw from this?

1) There are plenty of ideas, plenty of willingness and a lot of dedicated and passionate teams who want to widen access to justice and make legal services work better for all.

2) Innovation is occurring in a wide range of different areas, supporting many different types of people in different situations and using tech in different ways to do this.

3) There is real appetite for collaboration and partnership development to progress innovation aiming to widen access to legal services. The types of partnership needed are broad, and facilitating these will require input and effort from multiple parties, including established institutions in the legal world but also law firms and innovators themselves.

The recruitment and application stage of the Challenge has shown that, whilst the direct to user lawtech market is relatively immature, there are many working on this from a range of different angles. Along with the initial design and research work for the Challenge, it has also indicated some of the areas of support that might help the innovators to make their concepts a successful reality. 

What are the next steps for the Legal Access Challenge?

The finalists of the Challenge will receive a development grant and expert support to develop their proposals over the next six months. Meanwhile, the SRA will be using insights gained from working with the finalists to inform their regulatory approach to innovation and to help the market provide technological solutions safely.

There will be outputs from this work that will benefit the broader community of innovators, as well as the finalists. Examples of this might be guidance on recurring regulatory, data protection or liability-related questions, guidance on aspects such as user testing, and events to facilitate better connections between innovators and between “techsperts” and regulated law firms and individuals.

Watch this space to follow the development of the finalists and opportunities for the wider community.