Closing the legal gap through technology

Guest post by Anna Bradley, chair of the Solicitors Regulation Authority and of the Legal Access Challenge judging panel

Bradley: Challenge will inform SRA’s approach to innovation

There is a significant legal gap in England and Wales; it is a problem across the social spectrum. Despite our world-class legal system and 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, according to a survey carried out earlier this year.

Technology has made few inroads into how most people experience legal services. This is puzzling at a time when technology has transformed so many aspects of our lives, and when the biggest commercial law firms are investing heavily in technology.

It’s a problem that deserves to be tackled. As you will have read on Legal Futures, in May we at the Solicitors Regulation Authority partnered with Nesta Challenges to launch the Legal Access Challenge.

Made possible by a grant from the Regulators’ Pioneer Fund, the challenge’s mission is to make legal support more accessible and affordable for individuals and small businesses through technology, and to learn what barriers exist to these innovations achieving impact at scale.

The challenge includes research, dedicated support for innovators and for collaboration, as well as the analysis of the drivers and barriers to the development of legal technology.

One component of the challenge is a funding award. The 117 applications surpassed our expectations. The quantity, quality and breadth of ideas was so impressive that we were able to secure extra funding to double the number of finalists.

Eight successful teams were announced last month with solutions seeking to address a range of different issues. These include seeking to provide early legal support – such as a chatbot for people with learning disabilities – a workplace harassment evidence collection tool, and solutions supporting earlier resolution of legal problems, including an online dispute platform for small businesses.

There are also solutions aiming to redress the balance between unrepresented individuals and those who can afford legal advice.

Other teams are addressing the emerging area of digital rights, supporting claimants to unite with others against organisations acting illegally, and developing tools to support vulnerable groups, frontline workers and people who may have been unfairly dismissed.

The finalists have each received a £50,000 equity-free grant to develop their solution and expert support to develop their proposals over the next six months. Two final winners will receive a further £50,000 each in April 2020.

Beyond the sheer number of high-quality applications and diversity of the innovations submitted, our analysis draws some interesting and valuable conclusions from the application process.

Firstly, it’s clear there are plenty of ideas, willingness and a large number of dedicated and passionate organisations out there seeking to use technology to widen access to justice. Prizes like the Legal Access Challenge are a powerful method for unearthing the breadth and depth of innovation.

While the majority of applicants stated the money offered by the challenge was a motivating factor to enter, an even higher proportion (86%) were motivated by the positive social impact.

These applicants commented that digital transformation has enormous potential and that they aim to be at the forefront of tech development in consumer-facing legal services – an area which is seen as nascent, but which could move fast, just as fintech has over the past decade.

Many have seen, and been frustrated by, the limitations of current options, either personally or through the experiences of their clients.

Some applicants spoke about recent cuts to legal aid, and the concentration of need and lack of access in areas of higher disadvantage. Others mentioned frustrations with the slow pace of technology adoption and development in legal services and the potential value of technology to better support people underserved by traditional approaches.

The application process demonstrates there is appetite to innovate in a wide range of areas, supporting many types of people in various situations reflecting the different dimensions of the legal gap. The proposed solutions responded broadly to the needs of individuals and small businesses with a significant proportion of solutions applicable to both.

Many proposed solutions (51%) covered multiple legal problems, reflecting the potential for tech-based solutions to cut across legal silos. Examples include tailored guidance solutions covering multiple areas, legal marketplaces and search tools.

Of those that focused on a specific area of the law, compliance and corporate governance, social welfare and housing, employment law, family law and consumer rights, and financial advice all featured prominently.

Half of the proposals involved an element of tailored guidance, such as supporting users to understand their rights. Document automation featured in nearly a quarter of applications (24%), particularly in those aimed at supporting small businesses.

I was pleased to see that there is real appetite for partnerships to progress innovation to widen access to legal services, with 30% of applications coming from partnerships or teams of individuals.

This is evidence of applicants recognising the need to collaborate to bring together different expertise, including legal, technical and design capabilities. The types of partnership needed are broad; facilitating these requires input and effort from multiple parties, including established institutions in the legal world but also law firms and innovators themselves.

As you might expect from a competition focusing on legal access, charities and social enterprises were represented amongst the lead applicants. However, over half of applications were received from commercial organisations, demonstrating the appetite among businesses to provide more accessible legal services while also targeting financial sustainability.

Applications were also received from individuals and higher education institutions, again showing that solutions are coming from a broad range of innovators.

We will be using insights gained from working with the finalists and the applicants to inform our regulatory approach to innovation and to help the market provide technological solutions safely.

We think technology could be a real game-changer in the sector – enabling many more people to get the legal help they need. One of the three high-level objectives in our proposed corporate strategy for 2020-2023 is actively supporting the adoption of legal technology for the benefit for the public, small businesses and legal sector.

To help us do this, we have also created a new role of executive director of strategy and innovation – harnessing the opportunities around technology will be fundamental to the role.

I am reassured that the recruitment and application stage of the Legal Access Challenge has shown that, while the direct-to-user lawtech market is still at an early stage in its development, there are many innovators working on this from a range of different angles.

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

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