Government money aimed at accelerating the use of technology to widen access to justice will only go to ideas that directly aid consumers, rather than simply help lawyers do their jobs better, it has emerged.
In all, £250,000 will be available through the Legal Access Challenge to those with solutions that are at an early or proof-of-concept stage, with the overall winner receiving £100,000.
The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s regulators pioneer fund awarded a total of £700,000 last year  to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), and the regulator will launch the challenge later this month in partnership with innovation foundation Nesta.
The challenge website  went live this week ahead of the application window opening on 30 May.
Finalists will receive a no-strings development grant of £50,000 in September, and will go on to pitch their idea to judges in spring 2020, with one winner receiving a further £50,000.
Applicants will not be expected to hand over any equity in exchange.
The government funds will also be put towards an extensive research project into the legal market, specifically looking at the wider implications for how legal technology affects legal services and what that may mean for consumers.
In addition, it is being spent on the design and delivery of the challenge prize, partnership support for the finalists, and networking for applicants to support their ideas.
The application rules say judges will favour entries which, “if available at scale, have a clear impact on addressing the current unmet legal need of individuals and SMEs” and are “affordable for the widest range” of beneficiaries.
Further, the idea should “have significant consequences for those not able to address [their legal] problem satisfactorily” and also be “replicable, for example representing an approach which is in principle extensible to other types of legal problem”.
Participants could be “legal tech start-ups, law firms, alternative legal providers, advice sector organisations and teams based at law schools”, or a combination of them.
However, the rules specify that the technology selected must not solely benefit lawyers. They say: “It’s OK if individuals, or people who own or work for SMEs, interact with your solution in the presence of a legal professional or advisor.
“But there must be some interface between your solution and the individual or SME, and the individual or SME should be aware they’re interacting with your solution.
“The criteria therefore rule out pure enterprise solutions which, for example, help solicitors with back-office functions but don’t involve any direct interactions with end-clients.”
In a research report produced for the SRA, Nesta said: “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.”
The challenge recognises that technology “has made less of an impact for everyday customers” in the law than it has in other sectors.
Potential reasons for this include “longstanding assumptions affect the ways that lawyers and customers think about who can solve their legal problems and how”, and the fragmented legal market meaning firms individually “have lower capacity to invest in developing innovative digital technologies”.
The challenge has 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.