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Etic Lab Plots New Routes to Justice for the Digital Age

Today, Etic Lab LLP is proud to release its report Digital Technologies in the Access to Justice Sector: A Strategic Overview, which details the findings of a feasibility study designed to evaluate the potential of digital technologies, including teleconferencing, data analytics and machine learning, to enhance access to justice in the UK legal system.

New report tells the access to justice sector to put the brakes on “legal tech” and focus on digital strategy

The study was funded by Innovate UK, and produced 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.

In the words of the Fabian Society (2017), there is currently “a crisis in the UK justice system.” Due to prohibitive costs, cuts to legal aid and a lack of accessible information, many people with problems which might otherwise have been solved in the courts have turned away from the justice system, or else been forced to persist without qualified support. On the frontlines of this crisis we find the access to justice sector – a coalition of government agencies, local and national charities, legal practices and law clinics who provide free and affordable legal advice to those with limited means. As demand for their services has risen in recent years, there has been growing discussion around the possibility of using digital technologies to support the work of these organisations.

The Routes to Justice project aims to make a novel contribution to this debate. Unlike many of our colleagues in this space, we are not laying down guidelines to be followed by individual organisations; nor are we developing an app to solve a specific, narrowly-conceived problem. On the contrary, we are only interested in initiatives which can be applied at scale to improve outcomes across the sector. Likewise, we do not believe that digital tech should be used to squeeze “efficiencies” out of a sector that has already been cut to the bone, and neither can it be simply a way of providing the same service with the addition of computerised bells and whistles. Digitalisation is a transformative process, and we must be prepared to reconsider every aspect of our existing working practices.

The access to justice sector does not have a particularly distinguished record of digital innovation, with many initiatives failing to advance beyond their pilot stage. Our research suggests that this is not so much the fault of individual projects or organisations as it is the consequence of systemic barriers to the implementation of digital technologies throughout the sector. These include:

  • A lack of co-ordinated systemic oversight
  • A lack of effective feedback mechanisms
  • Constant workload and resource pressure

Any digital solution which aspires to improve sector-wide outcomes must grapple with these problems. Accordingly, we have developed five technological proposals which we believe would go some way to addressing these systemic issues, which we present and evaluate in our report. These are:

  • 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.

It is a general law of digital technologies that they are most effective when adopted at scale; moreover, any successful digital initiative must secure the enthusiastic participation of a plurality of frontline providers within the sector and be guided by clear and accountable strategic oversight. For this reason, we stress that in order to derive maximum benefit from any of these proposals, the access to justice sector must be able to organise itself around a set of common goals and shared practices to govern the use of digital technology. The essence of digitalisation is nothing technological – it is a question of strategy, solidarity and shared purpose.

Etic Lab would like to take this opportunity to issue a call to arms to our colleagues in the access to justice sector, and indeed to anyone interested in the use of digital technologies for social good, to join us in discussing how to organise their implementation in this crucial area of our public life. We invite you 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, and
  • 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 @EticLabUK or email routestojustice@eticlab.co.uk

About Etic Lab LLP: Etic Lab is a digital research and design consultancy based in Mid-Wales, operating at the forefront of the digital technologies transforming our culture and society. We conduct research on behalf of clients in the academic, charitable and business sectors developing digital strategies and prototyping custom applications to demonstrate and understand the potential of emergent technologies. Please visit our website to explore our wide range of work and interests: eticlab.co.uk

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