Access to Justice

There’ll always be some amount of stress, cost and hassle involved in resolving or preventing legal issues, especially for individuals and SMEs without the means to hire large legal teams.

Whether it’s as family members, neighbours, employees, tenants, consumers, small business owners or any of the other roles we play in our lives, making a legal claim is something most people want to avoid.

But could the process be made easier? And, if so, what impact would this have on a principle at the heart of the rule of law: that those who suffer a wrong, however big or small, should be able to access justice.

Let’s face it, a legal services market in which only one in three individuals – and one in ten small businesses – with a legal problem get expert advice isn’t working as well as it should be. Both the public and small businesses cite a number of barriers to using legal services, including 63% of people who do not believe that professional legal advice is affordable for ‘ordinary people’.

“It is not every generation that is called upon to question the fundamentals of their systems, of
their ways of working. The implications for all of us of the digital revolution are all too
apparent. Justice cannot be immune from them.”

Lord Burnett of Maldon, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales

The role of technology

You know the story by now – sector after sector being transformed by digital technology. Search engines, digital marketing, review systems, comparison services, recommendation algorithms, online account management, online payments, cloud based infrastructure, APIs, smartphones and, of course, the Internet, have redefined how people interact with providers and experts.

In legal services though, technology has made less of an impact for everyday customers. The potential reasons for this include:

  • Longstanding assumptions affect the ways that lawyers and customers think about who can solve their legal problems and how.
  • Most people do not need legal help on a regular basis, making it difficult for new kinds of providers to build enduring customer relationships.
  • A fragmented market, with over 10,000 firms in England and Wales, may provide choice but could also mean firms individually have lower capacity to invest in developing innovative digital technologies.
  • Investment in legal technology, which crossed the $1bn mark in 2018, is concentrated in solutions relevant to the biggest law firms and corporate clients.
  • A lack competition and innovation in direct-to-user legal services, as noted by the Competition & Markets Authority in 2016.

As a result, individuals, families and SMEs are potentially missing out on technologies that could help them understand, and resolve, their legal problems with greater ease.

All that said, there is evidence of ‘green shoots’ in the direct-to-user legal services market. Legal Geek’s ‘Legal Tech Startup Map’ lists over seventy startups as of April 2019, across various categories including consumer marketplaces, employment, real estate, wills, dispute resolution and ‘legal documents as a service’.

“As well as paying higher prices, consumers may be losing out from a lack of innovation.”

Competition & Markets Authority

The Legal Access Challenge

The Legal Access Challenge is a legal technology fund. Delivered by Nesta Challenges in partnership with the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), the Challenge had three aims:

  • accelerating the development of products, services and platforms that will help individuals and SMEs understand and resolve their legal problems with greater ease;
  • developing a community of people and organisations with a shared interest in implementing the use of technology to improve access to legal support who will share knowledge and ideas to improve customer outcomes in the legal services market; and
  • learning whether there are regulatory barriers to the development and adoption of mass market legal technology solutions, and, if so, what adaptations to the SRA’s approach might reduce these barriers.

The Challenge supported eight finalists whose innovations will make legal services more accessible and affordable individuals, families and small businesses. Backed by a £50,000 grant and expert support programme, each finalist had six months to develop their solution. Two winners were announced in April 2020 and were each awarded an additional £50,000 prize to bring their solutions to market. Find out more about all the finalists’ innovations that are empowering people and small businesses in need of legal help.

“Transforming the justice system in this way doesn’t just mean better outcomes for individuals. It can also create a society that is inherently fairer – building trust to assure people that the system protects them and works in their interests; making it worth sorting and settling even small wrongs; and in turn, discouraging those who might otherwise prey on the people who are at present least likely to know how to exercise and enforce their rights.”

David Gauke, Secretary of State for Justice, speaking at the Digital Court Reform

The 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 is one example of how regulators can take an ‘anticipatory’ approach to regulation and innovation. It’s an approach which channels public investment into under-served areas and, at the same time, brings regulators into closer contact with market innovators, helping them to detect emerging risks and barriers to progress.

Read our research and design report ‘The use of technology to widen access to justice’ for more context to the Challenge, and look out for our report of findings during the Challenge to be published later in Spring 2020.