Access to justice: digitisation of the advice sector is the last hope

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In the UK, one of the primary challenges to the Rule of Law is the genuine gap that exists when it comes to access to justice. There remains a huge number of people across society for whom fair and equal access to our legal systems is simply out of reach and that number is growing.  Supply, in the form of free legal advice and pro bono, is outstripped many times over by demand, with the result that we face a growing crisis which will not be resolved using traditional approaches.

While law firms are finally beginning to embrace the opportunities that technology can provide, the advice sector remains underfunded and under-supported (and arguably disincentivised) when it comes to digitisation.  And yet it is the kind of efficiency that can be driven out of this, that might offer some hope to both the providers and the users of this sector.

The left behind

Based on data from the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and others, just 30 per cent of all legal issues are dealt with via qualified advice – the remaining 70 per cent either self-serve, rely on friends and family, or leave their issue unresolved.  Indeed, the Ministry of Justice’s own reports (from a few years ago) suggest that over 7 million individuals have no access to legal advice, especially in areas such as immigration and family law.

Of the 30 per cent that do get some form of advice, only 35 per cent is from the for-profit legal sector, with the free legal advice sector (including law firm pro-bono) being by far the biggest provider (around 53 per cent).  In other words, for every 100 people with a legal issue, 70 would get no advice at all, 10 would be able to pay for themselves, and the remaining 20 would either access the free legal advice/pro bono (18) or would get legal aid (2).

While we (continue to) wait for the outcome of the Government’s post-implementation review of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO), which dramatically cut funding for legal aid, it remains clear that support from the state will not be increased, in breadth or value, in the short or medium-term.  This leaves the advice sector as the only safety net offered to those otherwise shut out from the justice system.

Fragmented market

The advice sector is staffed by highly motivated and qualified people, driven by a desire to ensure equal access to legal advice and the justice system for those that need it most.  However, it is a highly fragmented market, with a small handful of scale/networked players (predominantly Citizens Advice, Advice UK, LawWorks and the Law Centres Network) and a huge number of small, independent providers.  This fragmentation represents a challenge to the implementation of digitisation at scale across the sector.

In addition, while both the private sector (which has the funds, time and – most importantly – the commercial need) and elements of the public sector (including the courts, which have had a circa £1bn injection to drive towards digitisation) are prioritising the development and adoption of new technology, the advice sector is not.  It has been left behind with little to no support, budget or strategy.  This is largely caused by the funding model for advice sector participants, which is usually tied to the volume of cases that they handle.  As such, any time taken away from the front line to focus on technology, to innovate and look towards tomorrow, is considered a further threat to their ability to deliver today.

And still, legal need continues to spiral beyond what the beleaguered advice sector can provide, with a fundamental mismatch of supply and demand.  Digital transformation is the key to increasing capacity and meeting need, initially through the delivery of both self-service, efficiency tools and functionality and, longer term, through the provision of at-scale matchmaking of resource to need.  While this would require cross-sector adoption of technology at a scale as yet unseen, there are pockets of advanced thinking and operation in places which provide some hope. These include but are not limited to: Pro Bono Connect; Advocate; Legal Beagle (an online forum where visitors post their legal requests and receive advice from lawyers, trainees and individuals with non-legal backgrounds); CourtNav (an Online Tool developed by RCJ Advice with Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer to help complete divorce petitions); and Norfolk Community Advice Network (a signposting and referral directory with detailed filters allowing for optimal matching of individuals seeking advice and legal service providers).

In truth, the answer does not, at this stage, lie in a cross-market overhaul. Instead, significant opportunity exists with smaller players showing the way forward, with support from those outside of the sector willing to lend time, assets, tools or guidance.

James Harper is head of Customer engagements at LexisNexis

Access to justice: how tech is putting justice within reach

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