Single online entry point for legal disputes “should be hosted by HMCTS”

Law Society: AI regulation push

HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS) should host a proposed single online entry point for legal disputes, whether or not they end up in court, respondents to a Law Society consultation have agreed.

But the society has dropped its idea of creating consortia of solicitors to run subscription-funded legal advice helplines as part of proposals to “fix” the civil justice system.

The society launched a green paper last October as the first step in its ‘21st Century Justice’ project. Following a consultation, it has published an interim report.

The green paper’s central proposal was a single online entry point for legal disputes called Solutions Explorer.

The interim report noted that the judiciary last year indicated a move away from the creation of a single, publicly funded online resource like the Solutions Explorer “because it required building a major IT system all at once and that a ‘monolithic’ IT system was not considered to reflect the diversity of actors in the information and guidance and dispute resolution space”.

Its focus was instead on “linking these diverse actors… through a single data standard”.

But respondents described a publicly funded portal like Solutions Explorer as “a particularly vital resource due to the growth in unlicensed and unregulated legal advice online and the increasing use of tools such as ChatGPT”, which could provide inaccurate information.

“Most respondents regarded HMCTS as the best option to reassure users that information and signposting content was independent and impartial, with concerns raised about vested interests if such a resource was developed by private providers.”

However, concerns were raised about “the scale and upfront cost of such a project, despite the potential for longer-term savings of £72m” outlined in the green paper.

The society said it would “continue to make the case for a holistic” Solutions Explorer, describing it as “a vital cornerstone of any reforms to enhance access to justice for individuals and small businesses in the civil justice system”.

Government plans to develop an online information and guidance tool in family law “could provide a useful proof of concept for the Solutions Explorer if triage is also included”.

Following a workshop earlier this year, the society said experts had agreed that action was “urgently needed” on artificial intelligence (AI) regulation to protect consumers and access to justice.

“The experts felt that doing nothing was not an option, suggesting that now is a good time to act to protect consumers while the AI legal services market is still relatively immature and before tools develop further and inequalities become further entrenched.

“Although beneficial, quality standards and monitoring were felt to be difficult to develop and enforce. As such, introducing new regulation was seen as the best option to protect consumers.”

The society committed itself to working with the government, the Solicitors Regulation Authority and the Legal Services Board to “explore ways to close current regulatory gaps”.

The green paper also floated the idea of creating consortia of solicitors to run subscription-funded legal advice helplines for those not eligible for legal aid.

Consultation respondents “highlighted that this was unlikely to be attractive to those on low incomes and to small businesses”.

Instead, the society said it would press ahead with plans to improve and encourage the use of legal expenses insurance, which would include convening a “cross-industry working group to share data and insight and explore ways to improve outcomes” for policyholders”.

On legal aid, respondents suggested a variety of ways young lawyers could be attracted to work in civil legal aid.

One was reducing university tuition fees for those carrying out a minimum number of pro bono work at a student law clinic.

Another was “forgiving” student debt for those practising social welfare law or including social welfare law in the Solicitors Qualifying Exam syllabus.

The society said it would commission further research on how the Dutch ‘high trust’ model, where legal aid providers operate with reduced bureaucracy, could be applied in England and Wales.

Further commitments in the interim report were to provide new guidance for solicitors on unbundled legal services, which many solicitors were “wary of offering” and to work with regulators and insurers to “explore ways to reduce risk and expand insurance cover” for this kind of work.

The society said the ombudsman sector should be reformed, calling on the Ministry of Justice to take the lead on ombudsman reform so that there was “one ombudsman scheme per regulated sector”.

Richard Atkinson, vice-president of the Law Society and chair of its 21st Century Justice advisory group said: “What is clear is that the COVID-19 pandemic, digitalisation and AI have driven a fundamental change in both legal services and the justice system, and in the way consumers connect and engage with them.”

With a general election expected this year, “all political parties must urgently consider what they will do to protect and enhance a civil justice system that is the cornerstone of the rule of law, a healthy economy and a fair society”.

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