58% Feel Excluded From Legal System, But Can Tech Help?

A new survey on access to justice (A2J) has found that almost 60% of people believe ‘the justice system is not set up for ordinary people’ and interestingly, about the same number also believe ‘technology could lead to better services to help people resolve their legal problems’.

So, can technology really help solve the A2J challenge that most countries have?

One major project in the UK – the Legal Access Challenge – which is Government-backed and organised by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and Nesta, and which commissioned the survey of 1,776 people, is hoping to try and prove that tech can make a difference.

As mentioned in an earlier story, the project is today calling for people to put forward A2J tech ideas with the chance to gain awards of £50,000 ($65,000) – especially for ‘direct-to-user products’ that will increase access to justice for consumers and SMEs. Of these, one will be chosen for an additional £50,000 grant to further their product development.

Chris Gorst, Head of Better Markets, Nesta Challenges, says of the problem society faces: ‘Technology is not a panacea, but in many areas of our lives it has transformed the choice, convenience and quality available to us and this could be true in legal services too.’

While, Anna Bradley, SRA Chair, says: ‘The Legal Access Challenge can help to drive the development of new approaches which will deliver tangible benefits to the public.’

But Does Tech Really Improve A2J? 

Artificial Lawyer applauds the efforts outlined above. But, can tech really improve access to justice? Here’s some thoughts, and please allow me to play Devil’s Advocate for a while.

First, how large an issue is A2J for society? Most people don’t know there is an access to justice barrier until they need a high level of legal services and/or a dispute resolved.

You could live your whole life and never even encounter a lawyer, or feel the need for one. And, many things that are classed as ‘legal’ problems are not really seen as such by most people, e.g. you need a Will, you need to buy or sell a house. These latter two issues are not usually seen as too high cost. Conveyancing is not ‘cheap’, but if you own a home, then the lawyers’ costs are small as a percentage of the value. A Will, unless very complex, is also not super expensive.

Yet, the survey above found that 68% say the high cost is a barrier to accessing lawyers, followed by the uncertainty of the cost (56%) and knowing then who to trust (37%).

So, what’s happening? The answer seems to be around resolving disputes. This is where things fall apart and costs escalate to the point most people shy away and the level of justice in society is indeed harmed.

And, it’s worth pointing out that the average salary in the UK, for example, is £25,000*. That’s not the average starting salary, that’s the average salary across the entire workforce of millions of adults across the country.

Taking into account rising rents/mortgage costs, food and travel costs, day care if they have young children, and basically just having a life, how far does what is left go? Not very far. And consider this. A third of people under 35 in the UK have less than £100 in savings at any particular time. Yep…..less than £100 ($130) to draw upon.

Right. Now consider trying to engage a lawyer to help with a dispute that falls outside standard legal aid provisions. Not going to get very far with a real, live human lawyer, are you? Unless they are working on a pro bono/charitable basis – as some do, or there is a scheme that is funded by another party such as an industry ombudsman – then it’s a non-starter.

Bridging the Gap

So, how do we bridge the gap? A lot of work has gone into providing better legal information to people, through a variety of methods, from standard websites to Q&A platforms. This helps – at least for the people who feel they can wade through the information.

But, this can only get you so far. As soon as you pick up that phone and call a lawyer you are right back where you started and in a world of financial limitations.

Lawyers are just not getting any cheaper. That is the central challenge.

So, it seems that the only logical way forward to is seek to divert costly lawyer-heavy disputes into systems that can resolve a dispute with little or no lawyer input. That seems to be self-evident.

Is resolving disputes without detailed cross-examination, hundreds of bundles of case notes and the finest barristers at the Bar, coming in a bit short of what’s possible? For sure. But, what choice do we have as a society?

Can we accept fast-tracked resolution where a person (maybe not even a lawyer) makes a quick judgment? Can we accept it if an algorithm makes a quick judgment?

Now we are getting into hot water. Yet how do we bridge the gap?

If you want professional human input then someone has to pay for it. If not, then you have to rely on lay persons and/or algorithmic adjudication.

Looks like we are caught between two stools.

What’s The Answer? 

One solution is a combination of Joshua Browder’s DoNotPay and the Small Claims Court to reach a new model.

DoNotPay, for example, is great at providing a ‘pathway’ to justice. It helps you to complete the right forms and to send them to the right place in the right way – for smaller legal issues, at least.

On the other side, most developed countries have small claims courts, which have a legal professional at the helm. The government funds these as a way of keeping society running, but not costing the justice system too much.

If we can get the private sector to invest more in creating ‘justice pathways’ and then get the governments of the world to invest in expanding small claims courts and similar bodies, perhaps also with assistance from industry bodies whose interests may align with cheap and fast dispute resolution, then we could be onto a winner.

Another approach is to stop people even going to a small claims court and resolve things beforehand. We already see some great efforts in this direction with Ombudsmen services, and groups like Resolver, which directs you to often little-known industry bodies and regulators which will handle your claim.

Although – we are then back in the world of human-heavy input.

For Artificial Lawyer the answer is to find a way for the private sector and government to come together to massively expand and help fuse together platforms such as DoNotPay with existing facilities such as the small claims courts – using as much tech as possible to smooth and simplify the journey and exchange of legal data.

And, as to algorithmic judges…..nope. Not yet. They are just not sophisticated enough to control an entire process. Human issues are messy, illogical, confusing, full of strange and unusual details. Machines like to find patterns and standards. They are great at, for example, spotting a pattern in a 100 similar PPI claims. But adjudicating on a long-running (even if small) dispute between two SMEs or two households, with all that complex mass of blame and counter-accusation. Nope. You still need a human.

The job of the legal tech sector is therefore to improve the process and tech side to cut out all inefficiency and close the gap.

But, being realistic there will still be a gap.

The goal then is to see how far we can close it. As any improvement is worthwhile.

[ * average salary figures vary depending on whether you take personal or household data, and choose the median or mean average – but either way, the reality experienced by most people even in developed nations is that paying a lawyer’s fees for advice would quickly become impossible after a very short time. ]