There is a growing conversation within the legal profession globally about how technology can help people access justice. Legal assistance is often seen as too costly for many people, and the legal system can be difficult to navigate for people who try to represent themselves. All of this means that demand from the community for technology-enabled assistance with legal issues will increase in the coming years. But rather than posing a threat to lawyers’ jobs, this type of technology aims to use scarce resources more efficiently.
There are already many innovative technology solutions which aim to empower people with legal information and tools to navigate the legal process. Each of these has something unique to contribute to the conversation about how we can use technology to improve access to justice.
Supporting Self-Represented Litigants: Decoding Law
Decoding Law is a machine learning powered browser plug-in that breaks down complex legislation into simple language that can be understood by anyone. It also has a chatbot function that helps people find relevant sections of legislation and explains defined terms. The goal is to make all Hong Kong legislation, in both Chinese and English, accessible to self-represented litigants.
Decoding Law was created over a weekend by a team of students from Hong Kong University and Chinese University of Hong Kong as well as experienced software developers, data scientists and AI researchers at Hong Kong’s first LegalTech and RegTech hackathon. The Decoding Law team has recently attracted global interest after being named as one of four winners in the Global Legal Hackathon held in New York in April 2018.
Empowering Victims of Family and Domestic Violence: Penda
Penda is a free Australian app that aims to support victims of family and domestic violence by providing access to legal, financial and personal safety information. The goal of the app is to increase users’ knowledge and connect them with relevant support services across Australia. Penda has a particular focus on helping women become more financially secure as many women who experience domestic violence also experience financial abuse, and face significant financial hardship if they leave the relationship.
Penda was developed by two Australian community legal centres – The Women’s Legal Service Queensland and Financial Rights Legal Centre – with funding from Financial Literacy Australia and CUA. The app was launched in September 2017, and provides a great example of how community and private sector organisations can collaborate and use technology to help address entrenched societal problems.
Improving Tenant’s Living Conditions: JustFix.nyc
JustFix.nyc is a free app that helps tenants in New York City deal effectively with neglectful landlords; that is, those who refuse to undertake reasonable repairs, harass tenants for higher rents, or try to initiate illegal evictions. The app helps tenants collect evidence, mediate disputes, and report issues to the authorities. The goal is to help tenants navigate the legal process more effectively, and to connect them with legal services and tenant support services where appropriate.
Although none of the app’s creators are lawyers, they understood how critical it was to map the legal process before they started creating a tech solution. The creators worked closely with tenancy lawyers to document the step-by-step process tenants need to follow to resolve disputes. The result is a free app that helps people improve their living conditions, mediate disputes more effectively and, if it comes to it, represent themselves effectively in court. JustFix.nyc plans to launch apps for every major city in the United States over the coming years, and it will be fascinating to see what traction it gains.
Delivering Legal Information in Real-Time: RightsNOW
RightsNOW is an app that aims to provide access to legal information in real time using voice recognition technology. The pilot version of the app focused on answering basic questions for people interacting with the police (e.g. “can I film the police at a public protest?”). Now the creators are adding support for lawyers, with answers to basic legal questions (e.g. “how many directors does a Delaware corporation require?”).
Although the full version of the app is still being developed, the pilot version has already attracted much attention, culminating with RightsNOW being named as one of the four winners at the Global Legal Hackathon in New York in April 2018 (along with Decoding Law). This is likely being driven by the growing use of voice recognition technology in the United States, with sales of smart speakers like Google Home and Amazon Alexa tripling in 2017. People’s attitudes towards voice technology are also shifting – in January 2018 Google reported that 41% of people who owned a voice-activated speaker said it felt like talking to a person. All of this indicates there is scope for voice-activated technology to play a role in supporting the work of lawyers in future.
Where to next
While technology initiatives will continue to have a positive impact in improving access to justice for the broader community, only significant funding for legal aid and community legal services can help to address this issue long term. The reality is that technology cannot replace many of the critical roles lawyers perform – building trust with clients through empathy, applying specialist knowledge to complex situations, and developing bespoke solutions for clients. Instead, technology aims to complement and support the work lawyers are already doing, and increase access to justice for those that need it most.
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