The principle that the legal system should be accessible to everyone in need of legal redress – regardless of their means and circumstances – is simple enough to state, and one with which most people would agree. But it is far harder to achieve in practice.
In this blog post, I aim to address that challenge by analysing what access to justice really means, discussing how technology can (and indeed cannot) improve access to justice and, looking to the future, explaining where I think innovation will happen.
Access to justice
We tend to assume that access to justice is a social good. But that has become such a familiar trope that it is worth spending a few minutes going back to first principles to remember that it is not just a trope – it is both a profound socio-political concept and hugely impactful in the lives of real people.
The first question is: what is justice? I am sure that in your lifetime you have experienced a situation that you instinctively knew was unjust. Those at the front lines of consumer legal work see this play out every day in different shades of horror. Examples which spring to mind include a young woman who died when a car rammed into her while she was walking on the pavement, whose killer the CPS refused to prosecute, and a teenage Eritrean refugee who shared Christmas with my family last year, being trapped in a Home Office hell, unable to prove his age and to receive basic benefits to which he is entitled.
Injustice is easy enough to recognise – indeed, the people seeking access to justice through CrowdJustice (more on this later) often describe a feeling or an instinct of unfairness. In 2015, a survey commissioned by law firm Hodge Jones & Allen, and reported in the Guardian, found that only a quarter of the population believe that the UK’s legal system is “fair and transparent”, and two-thirds of the 2000 people questioned believed that wealth is now a more important factor in gaining access to justice than it used to be.
A legal system which, in practice, is inaccessible to the majority of the population ultimately renders meaningless the important values which it is supposed to protect. Justice only for the few who can afford it, is no justice at all.
The potential of technology
If we want a society that values the rule of law not just at a macro, philosophical level, but also gives those who live in it a belief in their legal rights, what can we do? The first thing that I will say, which may surprise you - coming from the founder of a tech company - is that technology is not always the answer. That is the case for two reasons.
First, there are practical limits on what can be achieved with technology. Tech products are only as effective as the human beings who use them consider them to be. While technology may provide an easier fix for institutional issues, it can be more difficult to offer perfect solutions for human-centric problems.
Second, the legal system is complex and often opaque. Technology itself cannot overcome that complexity. It can guide people through it and simplify existing processes, but for some people, particularly the most vulnerable in society, even the most advanced technology cannot always enable them to navigate the system on their own. They will often require a human hand to guide them through a situation with legal complexity.
Having said that – I am an entrepreneur and an idealist. I do believe that technology can bring the vision of a justice system that works for all much closer to a reality.
The solution I envisaged, that came to life in the form of CrowdJustice, would share the human story of legal matters, and encourage people to rally behind others’ efforts to use the law. For those not familiar with CrowdJustice, we provide a space for anyone who has instructed a lawyer to crowdfund for the costs of legal advice and representation. We have seen hundreds of matters raise millions of pounds to cover legal fees and adverse costs exposure. Five cases have gone to the Supreme Court. CrowdJustice enables people to obtain, on the one hand, advice for personal matters such as immigration and employment issues, and on the other, it empowers tens of thousands of people to support cases that change the law.
This solution relied on a few macro trends. The first is that people live increasingly online lives. This creates the opportunity for scale. It allows people to say “this is what I’m using the law to do”, and then to have 20 people – or 10,000 people – join in and say, we support you, we are willing you to succeed in your quest for justice.
The interesting thing we have seen at CrowdJustice is that, contrary to received wisdom, people really do want to engage with the law. Hundreds of thousands of people have given small amounts to enable others to access legal services.
We have seen thousands get behind the biggest Brexit challenges - the landmark Supreme Court decision, requiring an Act of Parliament to invoke Article 50, was crowdfunded. Crowdfunding also enabled the victims of the ‘black cab rapist’, John Worboys, to challenge the Parole Board’s decision to release him from prison. Community groups have rallied to save local green spaces from planning development. Parents whose children have died in the care of the State have raised thousands for legal representation at inquests, to obtain justice for their loved ones. Many such matters would not have gone ahead without the support of CrowdJustice backers.
So what can I extrapolate from CrowdJustice when considering how technology can create more access to the legal system? First, the internet can be a space for creating new perceptions of the law – from the fusty, bewigged image of a white male barrister that, on so many levels, conveys inaccessibility – to the story of your friend, for whom legal advice changed their status from migrant to resident. Legal technology can, quite simply, give consumers more insight into the law and what it can be used to do.
Second, technology must work alongside the legal profession. In addition to giving consumers greater ability to access legal services, CrowdJustice has enabled lawyers to take on more work and increased lawyers’ revenue. It has done this by working alongside existing practice.
Third, technology must work for its core users. You have to build products people want to use. It is key to think of technology as a solution to a user’s problem, rather than a panacea for only one side of a marketplace. To achieve that, going back to first principles in terms of what access to justice means, and what users want, is key.
Looking to the future
Innovation in the law improves access to legal services, increases people’s awareness of their rights and creates more opportunities for lawyers. So what does the crystal ball hold for the future of law? I will close with three predictions.
First, innovation in access to justice is going to be slower than innovation in the commercial legal space. Innovation is likely to come from people who believe in access to justice and who are empathetic to the problems users of the justice system face – but who are also not too risk-averse to try to do something radically different than the status quo. It is worth thinking about where we can incentivise people to innovate around access to justice issues.
Second, the changes that will have the most profound impact over the next 10-15 years will be the ones that work alongside existing practices. This may sound more pedestrian than machine learning, blockchain or the end of lawyers, but changing the perception of the legal system to one that is truly governed by general principles applying to all, regardless of status or wealth, is the holy grail of prizes.
Third, as the people who use the justice system change, the system itself will need to change. As technology increases transparency of information and tools like CrowdJustice make the law more accessible, more people start to understand the value of the law and want to use it themselves.
I may be an optimist, but I believe more people being able to access the legal system and feeling that justice can be done, means that more people will demand equality. That may be by challenging a government decision that feels unjust, not being silent when someone makes a jibe about one’s marital or familial status, or standing up for others in the community who are disenfranchised. It may also mean that more people look at the status quo and try to create change through innovation.