When we think about legal technology, we usually think of technology that provides solutions for the legal professions and the judiciary. But what about the legal consumers? How can they benefit from legal technology? One of the areas where legal technology can play another important part is Access to Justice (often shortened to A2J). In this article, we will have a look at what Access to Justice is, what challenges it faces, and then explore the solutions that legal technology can offer.
So, what is Access to Justice? There is not one singular definition, and the concept itself has changed over time. The Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre (ACLRC) distinguishes four different aspects, which each come with their own range of challenges:
- The Right to Appear in Court. The formal right of an individual to litigate or defend is a Human Right. This does not only apply to conflicts between individuals and/or organizations, but also to governments, or any body that can impose a sanction.
- Advocacy for Those Who Cannot Afford It. The focus here is on legal aid, especially for people who do not have the means available to get Justice. It is one thing to have the right to appear in Court, but it is another thing altogether to be able to afford it. A study published last year (2019) showed e.g. that in the US a staggering 86% of the civil legal problems that were reported by low-income Americans received inadequate or no legal help at all.
- Reforming the Justice Systems. Money is not the only thing that can stand in the way of getting justice. One may be faced with all kinds of formal and procedural requirements that create unnecessary obstacles. So, a third aspect of Access to Justice focuses on creating equal opportunities by calling for reforms of the Justice System to make it more accessible. Part of that has to do with implementing mechanisms for group and third-party claims.
- Equality of Outcomes. Several reports keep on confirming e.g. that legal systems tend to be biased. There also can be geographical differences, and different judges may even rule differently. So, it is not enough to focus on equal opportunity, we also need to make sure we get equal outcomes. This can be done by remedies like reforming and streamlining many areas of the legal system, as well as reforming other social institutions with the goal of creating a more holistic model of service.
The challenges and the consequences are clear. Not having adequate access to justice can seriously impact people’s lives in a negative way. The good news is that in many cases, legal technology can be leveraged to improve access to justice, especially for low-income individuals. In 2019, more than 300 legal technologies were available in the US to assist legal consumers seeking access to justice. And while legal problems may be local, the technological solutions to assist with Access to Justice can typically be used internationally. (Think, e.g., of chat bots that collect the necessary data to generate legal documents: the texts for the templates will vary, but the same chat bot technology can be used to get the necessary information to generate them). The most commonly used solutions fall within three different categories. They are a) technology that provides information, b) technology that connects individuals to lawyers, and c) technology that automates and produces documents. Let us have a closer look at each of these.
Legal technology solutions that provide access to legal information. The easiest and most common way legal tech can assist is by providing key legal information, as well as self-help tools online. If, e.g., as a tenant you have a dispute with your landlord, chances are you will be able to find the relevant information online that clearly explains what your rights and obligations are, and how you can proceed. There even are organizations that assist lawyers in taking on pro bono cases by providing them with free legal online guidance.
Legal technology solutions that connects individuals to lawyers. There also are legal tech solutions that help legal consumers find – typically local – lawyers online that can assist them. This assistance can consist of legal advice and/or of legal representation.
Legal technology solutions that automates and produces documents. Another area where major strides have been made in recent years is with legal technology that assists in document automation. Legal consumers can, e.g., fill out a form online, and the required legal document gets created for them. Often, legal chat bots are available to guide the legal consumers through the process, making the procedure as simple and effective as possible.
Legal technology can assist in other ways as well. Digitalising courts and tribunals involves both making jurisprudence available online as well as automating procedures, thus makes it easier to find precedents and to start a procedure. One of the effects of the Corona pandemic is that far more courts have gone online, and sessions via videoconferencing have become far more common. Some law firms have started virtual practices where service delivery is automated and happens faster and cheaper. More and more legal aid clinics, which often are community based, have gone online as well. There also are more online learning tools available than ever before. There has been an increase too in online dispute resolution solutions.
It is worth pointing out that many of these new technologies rely on Artificial Intelligence. In previous articles, we already mentioned legal chat bots on several occasions. Joshua Browder started a revolution with his Do Not Pay robot lawyer that can handle a wide range of legal issues. Many others have followed, like the Hello Divorce bot that can streamline amicable divorces in California to the point that often no lawyers are needed. Chat bots have reached such a state of maturity that several bar associations are considering accrediting them as recognized legal solution providers.
So, legal technology can assist in access to justice in many positive ways. Still, there is much work to be done, as the 2019 report illustrated. One of the challenges for legal technology is to find solutions for Digital Exclusion. Not everybody has access to the Internet or has the required digital skills to use it properly, which means they lack the ability to take advantage of these legal technology solutions. In 2018, e.g., one in six inhabitants of the UK lacked the digital skills, and one in ten did not have access to the Internet. So, lower income households are effectively hit double since they lack the financial and technical resources to address their legal issues.