In a period of austerity, applications of Legal Tech provide a realistic foundation from which we could rebuild acceptable levels of legal assistance. Severe cuts to civil legal aid have led to the development of a justice system that’s open to those who can afford it but closed to the most vulnerable and in need of its protection. The reach of legal aid cuts is laid bare in the Ministry of Justice’s own statistics. The year before the relevant provisions of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (‘LASPO’) came into force, legal aid was granted in 925,000 cases; the year after it came into force, legal aid was only granted in 497,000 cases, a drop of 46 per cent.
The figures fail to tell the story of the human cost incurred as a result of such changes. In a private interview with Amnesty International, Sarah, an appellant in child care proceedings stated: “I feel alone, like I’ve been left in the dark without anywhere to get help…I’m scared about what that will mean for my kids” (Quoted in Amnesty International’s 2016 legal aid report, ‘Cuts that hurt: The impact of legal aid cuts in England on access to justice’).
Technology could be pivotal in helping people like Sarah overcome the growing problem of access to justice. There are many innovative ways we could deploy tech to enable this, and making greater use of online legal platforms would be a good start. Websites containing clear simple legal information and advice are useful for citizens. We have state-provided, online services that provide medical guidance and plenty of resources at www.NHS.uk, and there is no reason, especially for those who cannot afford otherwise, why legal help should not be similarly accessed.
Recent statistics from the Office for National Statistics suggest that 87% of British adults use the internet daily or almost daily. In contrast, the majority of citizens in England and Wales are unable to afford the services of lawyers and the courts.
Increasingly people are turning to online legal services for basic guidance on procedural and substantive issues. There are some quite basic online legal services available to citizens, for example the information available on https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk. Many of these kinds of legal services websites contain some static information about the services offered, electronic versions of paper flyers and brochures, and links to resources.
So where do we go from here?
One promising development in the web-based delivery of legal information is the provision of more interactive resources within these platforms, including document automation. Through the use of document automation we can generate polished and customised documents using information from the user’s responses to a simple questionnaire. The user is given sufficient information to answer simple questions and the underlying software incorporates those answers within a standard form to produce a completed document.
To help with statement drafting in child care proceedings, Lucy Yeatman and I created a simple informative web-based questionnaire using Contract Mill.
The current template provided on Gov.uk includes complex questions, which can be intimidating and difficult to understand.
Contract Mill enabled us to include extensive guidance notes and clear explanations in plain English so that anyone, even those with no legal knowledge or experience, can complete a document conveniently at a time and place that suits them.
Lucy and I have broken every single question down into manageable sub-questions. We thought about what the question was asking and we tried to frame it in a way which a user could easily understand. We are still working on the application and we hope to have it running very soon.
As Joel Tito from the Centre for Public Impact states “most engagement with the law still requires the costly intervention of a legal expert. It is here that recent developments in AI can have the most impact. If the legal reasoning process is capable of automation, access to justice would no longer be in the hands of a profession which has a pecuniary interest in maintaining a monopoly over legal services”.
In practice, we are far away from that capability. However, this ‘AI buzz’ has led to many believing that technology is either going to replace judges or shatter the evolution of law. In reality, when can recognize a particular technology’s extreme novelty, we can benefit from its efficiencies whilst we trial it at arm’s length. We can provide feedback and enable it to develop into the swift competent service we need it to be.
Whilst reading Tomorrow’s Lawyers by Richard Susskind, I was greatly inspired by a quote he drew attention to: “perfect is the enemy of the good”. A tech solution which may have a few weaknesses which we could work on and develop should be compared with what we actually have today, a system that is too expensive, inaccessible and barely understandable to those with no legal knowledge. I believe that in this period of austerity, simple applications of tech will be the solution that enables us to reform our court system.
Junior Legal Engineer at SYKE