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Digital Technologies in the Access to Justice: A Strategic Overview

On 4th May 2020, Etic Lab published its report evaluating the capacity of digital technologies to support access to justice in the UK, including a systemic review of the A2J sector and five recommendations for technological interventions with potential systemic impact.

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What is the Routes to Justice Project?

Routes to Justice (R2J) is a feasibility study designed to evaluate the potential of digital technologies to enhance access to justice in the UK legal system. It is funded by Innovate UK, and being carried out by Etic Lab in collaboration with various partners from the UK access to justice sector, including LawWorks, RCJ Advice, Support Through Court and the Litigants in Person Network. The project kicked off in 2019. On 4th May 2020, we publish a report detailing our findings and recommendations for technological interventions with the potential for systemic impact.

What is the goal of R2J?

One of the benchmarks of a civilized society is that all of its citizens are able to defend their rights before the law. By this measure, the UK is sliding rapidly towards barbarism. Up and down the country, people are being shut out of the legal system because they lack the finances to pay for professional guidance and representation. The government has slashed legal aid funding across a range of areas, including employment, benefits and family law, meaning that potential litigants are increasingly being driven away from the legal system, or else forced to pursue their cases without qualified support. For many, the right to justice is in danger of becoming an empty slogan, bearing no practical relation to their lived reality.

A coalition of government agencies, local and national charities, legal practices and law clinics – known collectively as the access to justice sector – are striving to protect the universal right to justice by providing free and affordable legal advice to those with limited means. In spite of the great work they are doing, these institutions are generally underfunded, under-resourced and poorly equipped to deal with rising demand for their services. There is a consensus amongst opinion-makers across the sector that digital technologies have the potential to enhance the sector’s ability to support access to justice, and a debate is currently underway as to which specific technologies might best serve this goal. R2J is an attempt to contribute to this discussion.

How does R2J aim to contribute to the debate around digital tech in the access to justice sector?

Our project is explicitly aimed at addressing the potential systemic impacts of digital technologies in the access to justice sector. This sets us apart from other projects in this space, which have tended to focus either on dictating guidelines for digital innovation to be followed by individual service providers, or developing digital apps dedicated to serving a specific, narrowly-defined function. This kind of work is of course extremely valuable, but it also faces certain fundamental limitations. There is a recurrent pattern within the sector of digital initiatives failing to scale beyond their pilot stage – a phenomenon known generally as “pilotitis” – because they are unable to attract enough funding and/or participants. We believe that this is not a judgement on the quality of the projects themselves, but a reflection of deep systemic factors within the sector which have produced an extremely difficult climate for digital innovation.

Barriers to Digitalisation

Lack of systemic oversight and co-ordination: there is no single body in the sector responsible for formulating digital strategies, building consensus and overseeing their implementation. Instead, a range of different governance organisations pursue their own initiatives and publish their own guidance for service providers. There exists no common mechanism for testing and implementing digital initiatives at scale.

Lack of systemic feedback and learning: there is a lack of comprehensive, empirically robust evaluation mechanisms across the sector, meaning that it is difficult for the sector to learn from its successes and failures, or to assess the broad impacts of digital initiatives.

Constant workload and resource pressure: lack of free time and resources forces service providers to focus on gatekeeping and triage at the expense of strategy, innovation and training.

The first step for R2J, therefore, was to attempt to understand the access to justice sector as a system. Who are the various bodies which make up the sector, and what are their defining characteristics? What kinds of relationships exist between them? Can we trace the flows of information, decision-making and capital that make the system tick? To answer these questions, we engaged in a comprehensive program of research, comprising a detailed literature review, fieldwork and interviews with key organisations throughout the sector, and the use of innovative digital mapping tools. Using the data we gathered, we built a working model of the sector that we could use to assess which technological interventions will have the most impact, and where they would need to be implemented for optimal effect.

What did you find?

Our main conclusion is quite simple: the success of any digital initiative will depend upon the ability of the bodies which make up the access to justice sector to organise around a set of common goals and shared practices.

What do we mean by this? Let’s take a concrete example. As part of our attempts to map the sector, we developed an application called the Etic Lab Network Analysis Tool (ELNAT). ELNAT is a suite of modular digital tools designed to automatically find and classify entities within the access to justice sector from various aspects of its digital presence, from websites to social media to entries in databases such as the Charity Commission. ELNAT enables us not only to identify which organisations are offering legal advice across the country, but to extract information relating to their services, their digital maturity and their connections with other bodies in the sector. By capturing regular snapshots of this data, it is also able to show how it changes over time.

This information could provide the access to justice sector with a range of benefits:

  • A means of registering the variety of services offered across the country
  • A way of discovering patterns and trends in the distribution of service provision
  • A pathway for organisations with common interests to find each other and collaborate
  • A basis for strategic planning and decision-making at the level of individual bodies and the sector as a whole.

However, these benefits will only have genuine systemic impact if they are shared by a plurality of service providers and facilitated by clear and effective governance. A range of fundamental issues must be addressed, including – Which metrics should we measure? Who should have access to this data? Who decides how it will be acted on?

These are not questions that Etic Lab, as an outsider to the access to justice sector, can answer on its own. We know, however, that our colleagues within the sector have ample experience of building networks of solidarity, resource-sharing and strategic planning between different organisations. Therefore, we call upon our partners from throughout the legal system to join us in discussing how the access to justice sector can position itself to benefit most fully from the opportunities offered by digital technology.

What technological interventions have the potential for systemic impact?

  • The development of a common sector-wide Client Management Software (CMS) system.
  • The development of a bespoke Telecommunications Suite for the sector, including videoconferencing, secure document transfer and searchable service directory.
  • The use of Mathematical Modelling of the sector to track trends, make predictions and develop strategies for resource management, service provision and digital implementation.
  • The creation of an Intelligent Service Map tracking the location and characteristics of bodies within the sector and the relationships between them over time, using Etic Lab’s unique set of digital mapping tools (ELNAT).
  • The implementation of Federated Learning, a cutting-edge technique which allows organisations to pool learnings derived from their proprietary data without sharing the data itself, thus avoiding breach of data protection regulations and mitigating trust and privacy issues.

We invite all interested parties to:

  • Read the report, and contact us with any queries, suggestions or critiques
  • Return to this website, which will be hosting a regular series of blogs taking a deeper look at our methodology, describing the details of our technological recommendations,
  • Join us for a series of webinars, which will provide the opportunity to learn more about the project, ask questions of our researchers and connect with others interested in how we can use technology to enhance access to justice
  • Follow us on social media for updates on Routes to Justice and all our future work

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