Despite the rapid technological changes which have taken place in the past few years, disrupting almost all facets of our lives, there has been a marked decline in access to justice since the 2008 recession. In a report published on 16 September 2019, the Law Society suggests that, whilst technology is no 'silver bullet' to this problem, it can form part of a broader solution.
The challenges are numerous. In the wider context of people accessing legal advice and exercising their rights, government fiscal measures have clearly had an effect: cuts to legal aid have been significant, while reductions in local authority budgets have halved the number of law centres or agencies offering free legal advice.
Furthermore, technology solutions in this context must take account of other issues highlighted in the report: for example, that 11 million adults in the UK do not have basic digital skills and 10% of UK adults in 2018 lacked access to the internet. Many of these individuals without digital skills or internet access are likely to be disproportionately affected by reduced access to justice, as they tend to be more vulnerable members of society generally.
Further industry-specific challenges exist both for technology providers and lawyers. Lower levels of profitability in this part of the legal sector, coupled with duplication of certain solutions and a lack of coordination, are particular problems. Moreover, the report notes anxiety among lawyers on risks such as professional indemnity insurance for pro bono work, the new SRA handbook's lack of clarity on using legal technology and GDPR concerns with sharing data (which could lead to innovative, collaborative solutions).
However, solutions are emerging and beginning to gain momentum. The report points to particularly successful innovations including Mencap's legal advice chatbot (developed in partnership with IBM) and online legal aid elgibility calculators. Another example highlighted is how the charity Refugee Action has been using various online tools to provide training to other organisations on immigration law.
The report concludes by recognising that, as with so many cases, simply relying on technology as a 'silver bullet' is not enough. Innovation needs to go much further than technology, and solutions need to be tailored to the specific needs of a situation. Meanwhile, funding needs to be increased, along with greater coordination and collaboration between different organisations; indeed, the Law Society itself is leading various initiatives to this end.
All these measures, and more, will help to ensure that more people from across society have access to the fundamental human right of access to justice.
(The full report can be accessed here: https://www.lawsociety.org.uk/support-services/research-trends/technology-access-to-justice-rule-of-law-report/)
Innovation and technology are playing a critical role in ensuring everyone has equal access to justice.