By Nina Armangue, Volunteer at the Access to Justice Foundation

Courts have always adhered to tradition and formality, and the legal system has generally resisted change. But the legal aid sector has been gravely affected by a long period of enormous and sustained funding cuts and technology could provide some help and relief to a system in crisis.

How can technology help?

Technological innovation can provide a part-solution and expand access to justice throughout the UK by reducing costs, freeing up the time of lawyers and volunteers and empowering people by providing them with access to free and reliable information online.

Virtual meetings save time and reduce the need for legal professionals, volunteers and attendees to travel to the relevant advice center. This is specifically important for people who live in legal aid deserts and would have to commute far to access the nearest center. However, during lockdown, some of our grantees suggested that it would be hard to predict the participation of volunteers if there was a permanent shift to remote working. For, whilst some volunteers increased their availability when working from home others stopped volunteering entirely as they felt unable to provide advice without a senior supervisor in the room.

Increasingly, we have seen the centralisation of adequate and reliable information on websites that have the purpose of empowering the user through the provision of public legal education, information and advice. These websites are increasingly user-friendly and can even include monitored chatboxes to personalise the advice provided.

The pandemic has sped up the shift towards the use of technology in legal aid and advice centers. The virus has forced the introduction of video conferencing, remote hearing and e-filing measures. However, there are some issues that must be considered.

What are the problems with implementing technology as a solution?

A large problem in implementing technology as a solution is that of digital exclusion. It is estimated that, in the UK, 11 million adults lack basic digital skills and 5.3 million adults are non-internet users. Users of legal aid and advice centers are often susceptible to digital exclusion due to a lack of financial means, a lack of stable housing or a lack of understanding. Individuals may not have the financial means to obtain a device with which to video conference, as well as stable access to broadband connection. Groups that are likely to suffer from digital exclusion include older people, people with disabilities and financially disadvantaged people (including homeless people). These are groups that are also likely to need and access free legal advice.

Therefore, the shift to technology cannot be complete and frontline legal advice that is delivered face-to-face will remain necessary for many of its users. Moreover, investment in infrastructure and training as well as the development and application of adequate protocols and rules are necessary if this shift towards technology is to be deemed a sustainable measure.

By Nina Armangue, Social Media and Communications Volunteer at the Access to Justice Foundation.

The Justice and Innovation Group

Through the Network for Justice, we support the Justice and Innovation Group so that anyone with an interest in finding out about resources and developments in this area can stay up to date.

What is the Justice and Innovation group?

Innovation has been raised as an issue of importance to the Network for Justice by our members, who have shared with us concerns over:

 

The Justice and Innovation group, facilitated by the Network for Justice is a cross sector community of individuals interested in using innovative ways of working to develop and deliver justice services to our beneficiaries.

The Justice and Innovation group represents individuals, organisations, and initiatives interested in supporting, or undertaking work using innovative methods in the “access to justice” space. The Network is actively engaging with specialists in this area and has a focus on highlighting and sharing resources and tools (including training and capacity building) for the frontline and building relationships with external stakeholders that the sector can benefit from.

The Network shares updates on its work with the rest of the community to ensure their work is coordinated and they are making the best use of the experience, expertise, and learning generated by our collective knowledge.

The Group uses a monthly update newsletter and quarterly meetings (in March, June, September, and December) to enable knowledge, material, resource, and opportunity exchange, and:

 

The community is also used to crowdsource guidance, intelligence, and insight to support projects and identify individuals and initiatives with collaboration potential. You can join the group here.

The Network for Justice supports the Justice and Innovation Group, collating the work of the community and providing for the administrative functions to share and coordinate activity. The Network also leads on outreach to other sectors who are interested in supporting innovations in access to justice. Read more here.