Legal Access Challenge winners scoop extra £50k each

Bradley: Innovative spirit

A technology platform which supports survivors of domestic abuse and a chatbot helping people with learning disabilities understand their social care rights, have won the Legal Access Challenge.

RCJ Advice and Rights of Women, along with Mencap and Access Social Care, win an additional £50,000 each on top of the £50,000 that they and the six other finalists were awarded last September.

The challenge, run in partnership by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) and Nesta Challenges with government money, aims to broaden access to legal help for individuals and small businesses through technology.

RCJ Advice and Rights of Women have been developing several solutions to ensure women facing abuse are safe, including CourtNav, the online application to complete a non-molestation order, and be linked with a legal aid solicitor; a referral app for police where they can safely share details of women who have experienced domestic abuse with RCJ Advice’s FLOWS (Finding Legal Options for Women Survivors) team; and an online discussion forum for front-line workers that “creates a safe peer-supported space”.

Alison Lamb, chief executive of RCJ Advice, said winning the challenge was “so motivational”. She added: “Having digital tools like CourtNav is vital, with technology like it needed more now than ever while people are unable to access face-to-face support and courts are having to move to remote delivery.”

Since their initial application, RCJ Advice and Rights of Women have recruited 65 legal aid firms to receive referrals via CourtNav, and attracted over 300 frontline workers to the discussion forum, with a further 1,240 using the consultancy line.

The chatbot has been developed by Mencap and Access Social Care with pro bono support from IBM. A legal information service for the hundreds of thousands with social care needs, the chatbot uses IBM Watson technology to provide free, accessible legal information, particularly for those who are experiencing challenges accessing care.

It is used internally to support advisers, and using artificial intelligence learns from interactions as people use it.

Having initially focused on those with learning disabilities because of the involvement of Mencap, the chatbot will now be owned and developed by Access Social Care to maximise its impact and ensure that it reaches “more people across a broader spectrum of social care needs” – although Mencap will stay closely involved.

The aim is to add it to the websites of other advice-providing organisations “so that the chatbot becomes the ‘go to’ advice portal to help the social justice sector to triage cases in a cost-effective way so that lawyers and advisers can spend their time on the most complex cases”.

Kari Gerstheimer, chief executive and founder of Access Social Care, called on organisations interested in collaborating on the chatbot to get in contact.

As well as the money, the finalists received support from the SRA and Nesta, as well as a range of partners, including the Information Commissioner’s Office, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, City law firm Hogan Lovells and the Law Society, to develop their solutions.

SRA chair Anna Bradley, who chaired the judging panel said: “FLOWS from RCJ Advice and the chatbot from Mencap exemplify the innovative spirit we wanted the Legal Access Challenge to support and encourage.

“Both solutions stood out for so clearly understanding the needs of their users and their potential for broadening access to justice for vulnerable people. Too many people struggle to get legal help when they need it and I think there is a huge opportunity for technology to revolutionise the way people use legal services.”

She added that the challenge also helped the regulator “better understand what is holding technology back in the legal market”, and what more the SRA could do to encourage innovation while making sure the public was appropriately protected.

Chris Gorst, director of challenges at Nesta, added: “We’ve been pleased to see teams complete successful prototype builds, beta trials and product launches – with some already bringing to market live solutions to help people access justice. Several of the solutions are already helping more people resolve their legal problems.

“We are optimistic given the quality and progression of all the finalists that each of them will find success and make a difference to the lives of vulnerable people, individuals and small businesses.”

Later in the spring, the SRA and Nesta will publish a report outlining the insights and learnings generated by the challenge. One hope is to maintain the network of innovators and stakeholders in the ‘direct to consumer’ lawtech world that the project has created.

One of the three high-level objectives set out in the SRA’s newly published corporate strategy for 2020-23 is “actively supporting the adoption of legal technology, and other innovation, that helps to meet the needs of the public, business community, regulated entities and the economy”.

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