Technology and the legal system are on a collision course. In the past few years, Ontario has witnessed the proliferation of unregulated digital technologies that aim to simplify, facilitate, and reduce the cost of legal services. Spearheaded just six months ago by Aron Solomon and Jayson Moyse, the LegalX Cluster at MaRS Discovery District has already emerged as a world leader in the legal innovation space supporting technologies such as Beagle.ai, LawScout, and Knomos. The Legal Innovation Zone at Ryerson University’s DMZ is also home to emerging legal technologies that aim to “change the status quo of the Canadian legal system” with companies such as Kabuk, Map your Property, and Kinso to name a few.
These emerging technologies are increasingly transforming the relationship between law and society. What is striking about the advent of legal technologies is that their purpose is not limited to improving the management and efficiency of the legal profession alone; it is to simultaneously empower all parties using the legal system. Motivating many legal technologists is more than a desire to profit. They seek to assist individuals in finding, understanding, and complying with legal rules that govern their lives. Some of these new technologies are also designed to support law-making bodies and to analyze proposed laws for cost, overlap, and inconsistency.
Access to justice is the most urgent issue facing the legal system today. A 2013 report by the Canadian Bar Association, Reaching Equal Justice, points out that “the state of access to justice in Canada is abysmal and getting worse” and that “public confidence in the legal system is declining.” It is why access to justice is a growing collective focus for the public, government, regulators, bar associations, researchers, and educators.
But little attention has been visited on the price theory paradox underlying the system: the process for legal services is excessively high and inaccessible for middle-income bracket earners, yet there is an excess supply of lawyers that are unable to find sufficiently remunerable employment. It is within this context that it has been suggested that the access-to-justice problem could be addressed were it to embrace and harness the power of technology. The argument proffered is that technology can narrow the gap between supply and demand, and it can also address unmet demand for legal services by providing information and the resources to demystify legal processes and empower individuals as agents of their own legal needs.
Inspired by this trend, an important question remains: what evidence is there to suggest that technology can improve access to justice? Opprobrious to legal-tech evangelists, there is, in fact, no empirical verification or data that such is the case. There is little reliable data collected by the Ministry of Attorney General’s Office, legal aid organizations and other (non) law-related groups to support a causal link between technology and enhanced access to justice.
This is exacerbated by the fact that there is no benchmark or method available to confidently measure the factors contributing to the access to justice crisis, and the extent of any improvements — Need we measure a drop in the number of self-represented litigants? Or is it about increasing the public’s knowledge of the legal system? Moreover, legal technologies fail to provide information about their user experiences — did the people who were using their software system feel that their justice needs were met better than not using their service at all?
Although these unregulated technologies’ initiatives to improve access to justice are innovative and promising, there is also a danger in that they may attenuate the need for political reforms and for a normative commitment by the state to address the crisis. Innovation cannot flourish without an attendant upheaval to the justices system’s status quo, including pertinent business models, regulatory frameworks, and provisions of legal aid. Thus, there is every reason to welcome the systematic collection of legal data to inform and assist access to justice policy-making in the near future.
CBA National Magazine covers legal trends and issues. Any opinions expressed are the author’s own.
Selena Lucien is a Studio [Y] Fellow at the MaRS Discovery District,
Technology can lower the cost of legal services. LAO LAW at Legal Aid Ontario does so by helping lawyers make money. By its 9th year of development, 1988, LAO LAW was producing 5,000 legal opinions per year for legal aid lawyers in private practice. That usage was due to its ability to help lawyers make money.See: "A2J: Preventing the Abolition of Law Societies by Curing Their Management Structure Defects," at:http://www.slaw.ca/2015/09/25/a2j-preventing-the-abolition-of-law-societies-by-curing-their-management-structure-defects/
Selena Lucien is a fellow at the MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.