ODR and sandbox at heart of major lawtech push

Swallow: Looking for what’s really needed today

An online dispute resolution platform for SMEs and a ‘lawtech sandbox’ were unveiled today as cornerstones of a concerted push to develop digital legal services in the UK.

They are being developed by LawtechUK, a government-backed initiative delivered through a collaboration between growth platform Tech Nation, the Lawtech Delivery Panel and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).

It is funded £2m of government money to build on the delivery panel’s work.

The dispute resolution platform aims to offer SMEs an alternative, elective method to resolve late payments without judicial determination.

A feasibility study and proof of concept may result in a platform that integrates into existing SME accounting and management platforms, with a user interface “sufficiently intuitive that an SME owner can use it without the need for training or appointment of a lawyer”.

This may also act as a foundation for further development covering larger scale disputes, organisers said. Professor Richard Susskind is leading this strand of work.

The sandbox will bring together the private and public sector to support “truly innovative initiatives looking to reinvent how legal services, processes or systems are delivered”.

Lawtech UK said such initiatives might use technology and regulator support to address systemic legal issues, deliver new frameworks and platforms, re-work legal risk prediction, or deliver legal advice and dispute resolution in new and cost-effective ways.

The sandbox will include a regulatory response unit, bringing together regulators and policymakers to provide a “coordinated and expedited response to live challenges and thematic issues as they arise”.

There will also be a business unit made up of experts and leaders from the business and legal community, and an ethics unit.

The sandbox will be delivered in collaboration with the Solicitors Regulatory Authority, Legal Services Board, Information Commissioner’s Office and the Ministry of Justice.

Work is underway to establish the framework and processes for the sandbox pilot and LawtechUK is launching a call-out for a technical delivery partner.

The other two limbs of the initiative are the lawtech online hub and training centre – which will build an hub with free digital courses on legal technology and open access data on the lawtech sector – and lawtech toolkits, which will issue guidance responding to areas of legal uncertainty or challenge around new technologies, including on any matters arising in the sandbox.

Jenifer Swallow, the programme director for LawtechUK at Tech Nation and a former general counsel, said her work building the initiative has shown that to date most lawtech has focused on “incrementally moving forward on automation and efficiency”, rather than starting afresh with “first principles assessments on what’s really needed today”.

Lord Keen, who speaks for the Ministry of Justice in the House of Lords, said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has shown the legal sector’s versatility and resilience, using technology to continue delivering justice. We remain committed to backing innovation in our world-leading legal sector.

“The LawTech Sandbox is an important next step in delivering cutting-edge technology and furthering our reputation as a globally trusted destination for legal practice.”

Christina Blacklaws, chair of the Lawtech Delivery Panel, added: “The exciting and broad range of projects we are launching today as LawtechUK will help place technology at the heart of a new era of legal services.”

Panel member Dr Anna Donovan, vice-dean (innovation) at University College London’s law faculty, said the online hub would offer “a single point of authoritative information, providing substantive, as well as skills and aptitudes-based training that can be accessed remotely and for free by the whole lawtech community”.

Fellow panel member Rosemary Martin, general counsel and company secretary at Vodafone, predicted that the sandbox would be “a defining moment in the transformation of the legal sector”.

She explained: “In years to come, people may look back and say that the sandbox provided the missing link in the evolution of legal services and that its creation enabled the sector to leap from the analogue era to the digital age, a shift that benefited not only legal service providers and users but also broader society.”

Recent research found that female founders of legal start-ups were confronting sexism among investors, and that women-only founders raised just under 1% of the overall investment into the sector.

Ms Swallow said she had been surprised to find that only 15% of “start-ups and scale-ups” in Lawtech UK’s database were founded by women.

“There are so many female innovators in this sector that I was expecting to see that reflected in the companies,” she said.

Ms Swallow indicated that she was looking to address this issue but declined to say how at this stage.

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