Harnessing the communications power of the digital revolution can go a long way towards filling the access to justice gap created by legal aid cuts, according to a major report.
Innovations in the private sector showed that low-cost legal services were possible, and experience in other countries showed government-led initiatives could bring significant improvements “in a time of austerity”, it said.
The report, Face to face legal services alternatives: global lessons from the digital revolution, was written by solicitor and former JUSTICE director, Roger Smith, and Strathclyde University’s Professor Alan Paterson. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation originally to look into to helplines and telephone advice delivery, it evolved into a wider examination of technology and legal services.
Launching the report in London last night, Mr Smith said he had been particularly impressed by “paradigm-shifting” web-based innovations in legal services coming out of the private sector, such as the range of fixed-price and unbundled offerings from The Co-operative Legal Services.
He believed the Ministry of Justice could, with a combination of “encouragement and strategic funding” of both the private and not-for-profit sectors, help create “an England and Wales-wide network of websites covering the jurisdiction”. For instance, it could offer a prize for the best website in each of 20 areas of law to “foster and encourage” innovation, he suggested.
Mr Smith stressed that any network should be “digital first, not digital only”. Using technology to improve access to justice should not be abandoned because some people – the “digitally excluded” – would be unable to benefit from web sites, for reasons of inability online or “cultural impediment”. For this minority, a face-to-face advice option would be necessary.
However, the government could use technology to provide “adequate” access to justice for most people by allowing face-to-face advice “only after we’ve seen whether we can deal with your problem digitally, by telephone, using document assembly, Skype-type things” and so forth.
Mr Smith said that he and Professor Paterson had looked to overseas models of legal services delivery and had found significant not-for-profit activity in the US, although the private sector was hampered by restrictions on the unauthorised practice of law. He said England and Wales could learn from a state-wide website in New South Wales, Australia, which started with digital assistance, underpinned by telephone advice, and offered face-to-face as a last resort.
It was the Netherlands’ example that showed the greatest promise, Mr Smith said. Its government-backed, jurisdiction-wide Rechtwijzer website “raises the bar” and “opens up a whole new world in terms of solving problems”. The site, which is soon to launch its upgraded ‘version 2.0’, worked, he said, “because it’s dynamic and takes you on a journey through a process interactively”.
But he sounded a warning about government-funded projects based on the fate of the NHS Direct website, which is due to be terminated in April 2014. It had been a “gobsmackingly brilliant innovation from the medical world” which was based on a comprehensive website, backed by a telephone service and linked to an emergency service.
“One of problems is that big-ticket items funded by government can be wonderful but can be wiped out in a second by political whim,” he warned.
The report elaborated: “The fate of NHS Direct… stands as a silent ghost spoiling the banquet of anyone celebrating the wonderful future predicted by new technology.”
The report highlighted the fact that publicly-funded services were under “unparalleled strain”, while new technology in legal services was “dizzyingly rampant”, amounting to a “tide of innovation”. It cited a number of Professor Richard Susskind’s observations on digital developments, such as that an access to justice policy in a digital age requires “the need for imagination and entrepreneurialism”.
Examples of innovation the authors picked out for mention were a Dutch interactive website aiming to help with family breakdown issues from beginning to end. Some courts in the US had embraced technology as a way of assisting litigants-in-person to be “less of a burden on the judicial system”, the report noted.
At the launch, Mr Smith praised a new phone app devised by Slater & Gordon and adopted by the CTC national cycling charity, which has a menu of prompts in the event of a road accident, such as to photograph the scene.
Professor Susskind was a member of the report’s advisory committee. At the launch he said that too much discussion of access to justice was “about how traditional legal services can be funded”, but not enough about “working fundamentally differently”. An “alternative narrative” of legal services delivery had to focus on technology, such as online services and “online dispute resolution”.
The authors said Professor Susskind’s predictions of a ‘latent legal market’ were being proven correct by events. Mr Smith said: “There’s a market out there and people are going for it and have capital resources to do it.”