“Confusion reigns” in applying tech to access to justice

Davis: A blueprint for innovation is needed

A damning report into legal technology and access to justice has found that, despite government efforts to encourage the use of tech, the advice sector is beset by confusion and fragmentation, with most innovation taking place in the commercial part of the profession.

It also found a lack of clarity within the advice sector over how technology affected the regulation of their services.

Meanwhile, people with legal needs were left “stressed” and “confused” by duplication of technology innovations.

The Law Society report, Technology, access to justice and the rule of law: is technology the key to unlocking access to justice innovation? concluded that, while potentially useful, technology was not, in itself, a “silver bullet” to improving access to justice.

Information should be shared on the usefulness of technology across private and public sectors, the society suggested. Chancery Lane could itself be the repository for this information sharing.

The report, based on interviews with 45 stakeholders, an assessment of 50 technology initiatives, and a review of published work on the subject, highlighted how LASPO had led to funding cuts, while millions of adults struggled to use digital resources and lacked trust in government-supplied data.

However, it acknowledged that technology was in regular use to make both back-office and front-of-office processes – such as public legal education – in the justice system more efficient and more affordable.

It underlined that practitioners and advice workers in the sector “use a combination of websites, mobile apps, live chat services, face-to-face, paper, telephone and videoconferencing”, mainly as a way of providing information to the public.

But despite saying that overcoming barriers was worth the challenge, it identified “widespread confusion, variation and fragmentation” in how best to innovate or fund access to justice solutions.

The impact was serious. For instance, said the report: “People with legal needs feel stressed… and disenfranchised from the justice system due to duplication and often conflicting solutions.”

The report quoted one practitioner, saying: “A number of lawyers, firms and organisations believe that, by developing apps or purchasing expensive software, their services will be more efficient or they will be able to reach more people. Technology in isolation is not the answer.”

There was also a severe disparity in the availability of technology products between the commercial and non-commercial sector, with “technological enablement… nowhere near as disruptive or powerful [in the latter] in comparison to the commercial legal market”.

It cited an observation made by Professor Roger Smith, whose work is focused on this issue and who said: “Large firms have the money for investment and a clientele that will increasingly expect [artificial intelligence]-assisted provision to reduce costs [whereas] life in a law centre or low-income practice is already very different – almost unrecognisable – from that in one of the large City firms.”

Further, law firms or advice centres tended not to be aware of innovations in use elsewhere and were duplicating or replicating the same techniques “owing to a lack of shared processes and best practice”.

Part of the problem was the lack of profit in non-commercial innovation, which meant “the commercial private sector has been slow to develop solutions as there is little to no interest from investors”.

One participant in the survey said “the availability of pro bono innovation and technology specialists is far too limited and [they] often have different ways of doing things”, the researchers reported.

Several respondents expressed concerns over how the use of new technology would affect the regulation of their services. The confusion centred on both data protection obligations and professional indemnity insurance rules relating to pro bono.

On this last worry, the report said: “We found many participants… who referred legal work to pro bono solicitors and/or barristers, were not aware of whether the obligations for registering for professional indemnity insurance fell to the referrer or referee.”

Equally, there was a “lack of ethical clarity”, the report said, on the Solicitors Regulation Authority’s attitude to “the ethical design, development, deployment and continued use of technology to provide legal services”.

Law Society president Simon Davis said: “Our study demonstrated that in most cases it is not a question of technology. Its use should be coupled with better data management, information sharing and co-ordination in the sector.

“Knowing who is developing what, and for what purpose, is an essential step to help the voiceless who are not able to access justice.

“A blueprint for innovation is needed to… put the person with legal needs at the centre and framed by a combination of changes in mindset, process, product and service empowerment.”

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