Guest post by Chris Gorst, director of challenges at Nesta Challenges
There is no question that technological innovation has already revolutionised society at large across a range of sectors, from healthcare to retail and financial services. Likewise, in the legal sector, technological progress has been made.
Functional technologies are being designed with legal service providers in mind, often helping to automate and simplify internal processes. However, when it comes to customer-facing lawtech for small businesses and individuals, there is much more to be done.
The Legal Access Challenge was established to bridge the legal gap that exists in England and Wales, where too many individuals and small businesses do not feel the legal system is designed for them. Indeed, our research found six in ten (58%) people in England and Wales don’t think the legal system is set up for ordinary people.
Delivered by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Nesta Challenges, the challenge prize awarded a total of £500,000 to innovators to develop solutions that would broaden access to justice using technology.
Earlier this year, the challenge’s winners were announced , with Mencap and RCJ Advice coming out on top. And deservingly so. Mencap’s AI-enabled virtual adviser helps people with social care needs access legal advice while RCJ Advice’s FLOWS and CourtNav integrate digital platforms with human advice to help domestic abuse survivors secure protective court orders.
However, the winners are not the only legacy of the challenge. We have also gained essential insight into the current innovator ecosystem, and now better understand the support measures needed to accelerate the development of new lawtech products.
We have recently published a final report, which sits alongside a report from the SRA, and both suggest  there are outstanding questions and challenges within the lawtech space.
An important aspect of successful new lawtech services that has emerged during the challenge is how these integrate with, or enhance, personalised advice. With Covid-19 likely to restrict face-to-face contact for some time, integrating digital services with personal support will remain a key challenge. This applies to all legal service users, but especially so for those with lower levels of digital access and ability or higher vulnerability.
The finalists and winners offer some examples of approaches that can be adopted to support users with differing needs.
We are also experiencing a time when parts of the legal sector are financially squeezed and delays within the court system are building. Innovative, digital approaches could prove useful in helping people to get legal help more quickly with issues that may emerge in the months ahead, for example around employment, debt and consumer rights.
Over the course of the challenge, we have been able to shed light on other potential barriers to innovation. One major difficulty is the difficulty in developing financially sustainable models that maximise affordability for the public. During the challenge, we have seen various business models emerging to address this.
Further barriers included obtaining the right mixture of expertise and collaboration between providers who are closest to users, technology experts and legal experts, and continuing to create opportunities for collaborative working across the legal services market.
We also found that, while that legal regulation isn’t a barrier to innovation, the complexity of overlapping regulatory regimes is a challenge.
At present, individual organisations in the legal sector commonly work in partnership with others for signposting and referrals. However, the full benefits of technological innovation will only be realised if individual solutions integrate to create seamless support for users such as linking across different stages of the customer journey and across different service providers.
This might be achieved through additional measures such as the development of common data standards, and trusted and better methods for responsible sharing of data, as well as the encouragement of open source and open standards.
Additionally, strong, design-based principles will help in bringing new services to physical or digital locations that users already visit, rather than expecting them to go somewhere new.
Broadly speaking, the legal sector has responded quickly to the current crisis, rapidly implementing remote hearings, transitioning to remote service delivery and developing new initiatives to share information about approaches that are working well – proof that change at pace is possible.
I sincerely hope that this momentum continues beyond the current crisis to deliver transformative change within the sector, deploying the full benefits that technological innovation can bring to narrow the legal services gap.
Change will not happen overnight, and we will need to see more investment in lawtech solutions for the individual, consumer and small business end of the market. This may require policy and regulatory support, such as exploring approaches to build consumer confidence in digital services, and an even greater flow of entrepreneurial talent into the market.
More private investment, partnerships and enterprise deals between traditional firms and technology start-ups will make a difference.
The Legal Access Challenge has highlighted the importance of accelerating innovation in lawtech solutions which are focused squarely on the end-users: individuals and small businesses.
It has sparked a crucial conversation with the legal sector on future opportunities to widen access to legal support and the SRA has committed to a number of actions in response to the challenge findings, such as making sure innovators have support to understand overlapping regulatory regimes.
What is more, it has helped to build an ever-growing community of innovators, passionate about improving access to justice, and that is why we’re confident lawtech innovation will continue at pace in the years to come.