UK lawtech competitive lead “not what it was”

Matcham: Linguistic advantage eroded

Regulatory certainty is the key to the UK’s success in a future global legal market dominated by technology, but access to justice and the rule of law should also be built in, a seminar heard last week.

At the online LawtechUK event, held before a live audience, What does the future hold for lawtech?, the audience saw a panel consisting of Professor Richard Susskind, Sophia Adams Bhatti, global head of purpose and impact at City firm Simmons & Simmons, smart contracts expert Peter Hunn, and Fraser Matcham of legal support app Legal Utopia.

The panel agreed that the UK has a competitive advantage at the moment from language and the existence of LawtechUK itself, but that competition elsewhere in the world was hotting up and challenging this supremacy.

Mr Matcham pointed out that, with the existence of live translation, “suddenly that [linguistic] competitive edge is starting to chip away”.

Ms Adams Bhatti said the UK did not have “anywhere near” the competitive lead it had even three to five years ago because Covid has proven the case for digitalisation in legal services – something that favoured competitor jurisdictions as well as this country.

The key to competitiveness in future was efficiency, she said: “Clients, whether B2B or B2C, want one thing: to solve a problem [by] the most efficient mechanism you have… With the resources required not the resources you could throw at it.”

Mr Matcham said the volume of investment in research and development in the UK enabled the country “to continue to be the inventors of the foundations” of lawtech, but Ms Adams Bhatti said maintaining a competitive lead in the short-term required infrastructure, such as regulatory certainty, standardisation of templates or agreed data models.

Mr Hunn said legal certainty and law reform were the “bedrock that we build everything on top of”. Further investment and collaboration, in order to influence work ongoing in other jurisdictions, were also essential.

Professor Susskind observed that, while international collaboration could be positive, the UK needed to develop some products and services exclusively so as to “lead the way globally”.

Earlier in the event, a discussion was chaired by Christina Blacklaws, former Law Society president and chair of the LawtechUK Panel, Dr Natalie Byrom, the Legal Education Foundation’s director of research and learning, Fiona Rutherford, chief executive of JUSTICE and Oxford University computer science specialist Professor Thomas Melham.

Dr Byrom and Ms Rutherford agreed that improving access to justice was an essential component of legal technology.

Dr Byrom pointed out that data digitisation should not be driven by legal professionals without a public mandate. People should be asked “what they want when it comes to access to justice and not to assume we know the answers”.

She added that one of her frustrations with online dispute resolution was that you could design a system that persuaded people to settle, but it did not necessarily achieve access to justice.

“If your tech solution… is just encouraging people to settle and isn’t helping people to access their rights, then it’s not an access to justice solution.”

Mr Melham said that, from the point of SMEs, more settlement was desirable. But he agreed with the other speakers that technology must strengthen and improve the rule of law.

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