Consumers see technology as key to unlocking access to law

Gorst: For too many people, legal support and advice seems out of reach

A majority of people in England and Wales think the legal system is not set up for ordinary people, with only half seeking advice from a lawyer when faced with a legal problem, new research has found.

The Opinium survey of 1,776 people was conducted to mark the launch of the Legal Access Challenge, the centrepiece of an 18-month programme being run by the Solicitors Regulation Authority with innovation foundation Nesta and £700,000 of government money to support and accelerate ideas to use technology to improve access to justice.

As we revealed earlier this month, four finalists with proposals that will directly help consumers and/or small businesses will each receive a no-strings development grant of £50,000 in the autumn, and go on to pitch their idea to judges in spring 2020, with one winner receiving a further £50,000.

They will also receive bespoke support and organisers hope to build up a community around the use of technology to support access to justice and legal services, noting that most investment in lawtech to date has been at the commercial law end of the market.

The survey found that 58% thought the legal system was not set up for ordinary people, with the vast majority wanting it to be easier for people to access legal support.

One in seven (15%) had experienced a legal issue in the last 10 years, but Nesta suggested that, with only 51% confident they could identify whether a problem was a legal matter, the figure was likely to be “far higher”.

For consumers, family matters were the most common legal problem (21%), followed by personal injury (12%) and breach of contract/problems with goods or services (11%), while regulation (30%) was the main problem faced by businesses, well ahead of business premises (15%) and tax issues (12%).

Government research in 2017 found that only 10% of people with legal problems used a solicitor, but those polled by Opinium were far more likely to have done so – 54% of those with a legal problem took advice from a solicitor or other legal professional.

Speaking to family and friends (20%), using a free advice service like Citizens Advice (20%) or Google (16%) were the next main sources of help.

When asked about barriers to accessing legal advice, high cost was cited by 68% of people, followed by the uncertainty of the cost (56%). Knowing who to trust, whether they were receiving good advice and where to start in the first place were also significant impediments.

The vast majority of respondents (79%) agreed that it needed to be easier for people to access legal guidance and advice for themselves, with 59% thinking technology could help.

People believed that a digital service for legal advice would make an upfront fixed price, a better understanding of their rights, and cheaper advice and information more likely.

Chris Gorst, head of better markets at Nesta Challenges, which is running the competition for the SRA< said: “For too many people, legal support and advice seems out of reach and reserved for those with the time and money to navigate a complex legal system.

“Technology is not a panacea, but in many areas of our lives it has transformed the choice, convenience and quality available to us and this could be true in legal services too.

“We are launching the Legal Access Challenge to help demonstrate what technology can do and to bring these new solutions to market.”

SRA chair Anna Bradley added: “We want our regulation to support new ideas. The Legal Access Challenge can help to drive the development of new approaches which will deliver tangible benefits to the public, opening up access to legal services for as many people as possible.”

Speaking yesterday at a briefing on the challenge, SRA director of regulatory policy Chris Handford said the work supported the regulatory objectives in the Legal Services Act 2007, such as improving access to justice.

He added: “To work in real time with innovators to develop technology will aid our understanding of what the regulatory opportunities and challenges of supporting innovation are.”

The closing date for entries is 11 August. All the details can be found here.

See also, How innovation can unlock legal services for the majority.

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