Hackathons not solving “intractable problems” of access to justice

Smith: Mapping is vital

The “hackers, hustlers and hipsters” of legal tech hackathons are “not enough” to solve the “intractable problems” of access to justice, a leading legal researcher has argued.

Professor Roger Smith also described the £1.2bn court modernisation programme as “dogged by lack of independent evaluation” and “by a tendency to pervasive hype”.

In his annual report on the digital delivery of legal services to people on low incomes, Professor Smith said: “Increasingly, there seems a realisation that hackers, hustlers and hipsters are not enough to solve some of the intractable problems of access to justice.

“The business people have tended to go their own way – largely leaving the issue of how technology will affect access to justice to be explored by others who might be able better to adjust to inadequate levels of clean data; uneven existing provision of services; significant levels of digital exclusion and woefully thin resources.”

There were three legacies from this, he continued – the possible ‘trickle down’ effect of generally applicable technology, such as case management systems; “the inspiration of comparable levels of change”; and more specialist versions of the hackathon, like that of The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL).

He said HiiL’s justice accelerator programme has opened up opportunities for developers in access to justice from low-income countries like Benin and Rwanda and has actively pushed a legal empowerment agenda.

But, for access to justice, “no ‘killer app’, no one overwhelming innovation, has emerged”.

Professor Smith wrote: “Most provision in most jurisdictions in fields such as consumer, housing and immigration remains face to face in traditional forms.

“Indeed, over this period, in many jurisdictions provision has regressed because of cuts to funding. Nevertheless, technology continues to hold both the promise and the actuality of change.”

He said the importance of technology for access to justice was underlined by its rapid adoption within the justice system as a whole, particularly in England and Wales.

The academic said there had been a number of criticisms of the government’s court modernisation programme which had an impact on people with low incomes.

These included the consequences of general issues such as its funding by the sale of physical courts, its speed, and the “emerging funding gap at the end of the project”.

He said specific issues relevant to people on low incomes were the “increased difficulty of physical access to courts and tribunals”, changes to the way tribunals worked with the introduction of “continuous online resolution” and assistance for the digitally excluded.

“Again, development is dogged by lack of independent evaluation on objective grounds and clouded, particularly in England and Wales, by a tendency to pervasive hype.

“In addition, those providing services for people on low incomes will have to follow and re-orientate provision historically focused on physical representation as relevant adjudication increasingly goes online.”

On digital exclusion Professor Smith said the excluded tended to be in particular groups – not just the poor.

“They are likely to be women, ethnic minorities, the very old and the disabled.”

The professor said, according to the Royal Geographical Society, 5.9m adults in the UK had never used the internet, 4.1m people living in social housing were offline and 27% of disabled adults (3.3m) had never used the internet.

He said it did “not necessarily make sense” for the modernisation programme to separate digital capacity and general capacity.

“That has been the basis of the ‘assisted digital’ programme linked to the court modernisation programme but all the evidence suggests that what people actually need is integrated help on digital means and substantive resolution of their problem.

“Which brings us to end on a conclusion which will be no surprise to anyone in the field seeking to deliver access to justice services but may be a challenge to government agencies seeking expenditure savings. Technology can supplement but not supplant personal assistance.”

Professor Smith concluded by stressing the importance of mapping everything that was happening.

“Mapping of developments is just the first step. It requires an accompanying mindset – a willingness to be transparent and to collaborate in circumstances where there is naturally a level of competition – particularly when it opens up the opportunity to build on other’s successes.”

Earlier this year, another report cast doubt on the effectiveness of hackathons in the law.

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