Legal Technology – Solving the Justice Gap
The impact of cuts to legal aid is well known. Vulnerable litigants who are most in need of protection have been left without effective legal support. Nowhere is this issue more acute than in family proceedings, where shrinking local authority budgets and increased demand on services compound the difficulties. The gap between those who can afford professional legal help and those who cannot grows ever wider.
The figures fail to tell the story of the human cost incurred as a result of such changes. As Sarah, a litigant in child custody proceedings said to Amnesty International – “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.’.
Legal technology provides a huge opportunity for people like Sarah to bridge the justice gap.
There is a world of possibilities, but I think making greater use of online legal platforms would be a good start. Static websites containing basic guidance, on procedural and substantive issues can really help litigants understand the law and present their case. The Citizens Advice Bureau, for example, provides information about their services, electronic versions of paper flyers and brochures, and links to resources.
However, they do little to unravel the complexity of substantive law nor can they provide any kind of tailored advice or guidance. They can’t really help a litigant understand what is likely to be important to the Judge.
Interactive resources and document automation can help solve these limitations. Using tools like Contract Mill; a platform which enables users to digitize their legal work, business and processes; users can generate polished and customised document simply by completing an online questionnaire.
Guidance is ‘baked in’ to the system and the user is prompted to provide complete, relevant and accurate information; conditionality can be used to ensure only relevant questions are shown. The underlying software incorporates those answers within a standard form to produce a completed document.
With this in mind, I and Lucy Yeatman, Senior Lecturer and In-house Solicitor at the University of Liverpool, decided to help litigants trying to navigate care proceedings concerning children. As Lucy put it:
“following changes to legal aid rules, there has been an enormous increase in the number of people involved in the family court without a lawyer to represent them. These proceedings are very stressful for parents and can have a lasting impact on their relationship with their children. They often find the court procedure and the court documents very difficult to follow or understand. It is therefore important that there is help available to parents to prepare vital court documents”.
Although the Government have provided a template to support litigants, it includes complex questions and it is intimidating and difficult to understand.
Using Contract Mill, we created a simple informative web-based questionnaire which followed the template.
Contract Mill enabled us to include extensive guidance notes and plain English explanations so that anyone can complete a document conveniently at a time and place that suits them. The system is far more accessible to those lacking legal knowledge or experience.
Usability and simplicity is at the heart of the design. Lucy and I broke down every single question, thought about what it was truly asking and tried to frame it in a way which a user could understand.’
Contract Mill supported the project from its inception. Kaisa Kromhof, the CEO of Contract Mill highlights – “Our mission has been to create easy to use yet powerful technology that makes it possible for our users to improve access to justice and access to knowledge. In other words, with our product, we are helping our users to help others. This initiative is a wonderful example how our technology can be used not only inside corporations or law firms but also by authorities and charitable organizations for common good. I could not be more proud seeing our early visions turning into practice.”
However, document automation is just the start. If the legal reasoning process can be automated, the way in which justice is delivered would be transformed. This “AI Buzz” has led to many believing that technology is either going to replace judges or shatter the evolution of law.
Realising that vision may be some way off, but this ought not to discourage us. By trialing new applications of technology we can benefit from its efficiencies at the earliest opportunity. Only through trial, feedback and constant improvement will we develop the technologies of tomorrow.
We ought not to let perfect be the enemy of the good; a technology solution with a few limitations is still vastly preferable to a system which is simply inaccessible to those who need it most.
Junior Legal Engineer