In the realm of AI and the law, it is easy to veer towards dark and dystopian, Black Mirror-esque outcomes. From legal practitioners being replaced by robolaywers to the potentially devastating impact of bias baked into the tech itself, there is certainly a reason that people are wary of the new application of AI in situations that impact human autonomy and liberty. And yet, the power and cost mitigation of advanced tech and AI in law also offers a profound way to bridge the justice gap, making legal recourse attainable for an entire group of people and organizations that previously may have been unable to have their day in court.
What is the justice gap?
A foundational principle in the rule of law is “ability of individuals to seek and obtain a remedy through formal or informal institutions of justice for grievances." However, for billions of people across the globe, legal representation is a luxury that is far beyond their means. The concept of the justice gap is precisely this pricing out of millions from accessing basic legal services.
This justice gap, also known as a fundamental lack of access to justice, is about more than economic recovery. It is about the underprivileged or under-resourced having their voice heard, having an ability to exercise their rights, challenge discrimination, or hold decision-makers accountable. Reports have found that in the United States, 80% of low income individuals and 46% of their middle class counterparts cannot afford legal representation. On a global level, the number of people that have fallen victim to this justice gap has surpassed 5.1 billion.
How is advanced legaltech bridging the gap?
From accelerating time to key evidence, to bringing the courtroom to even the most remote corners of the world and even automating repetitive tasks, legaltech is dramatically improving the accessibility and affordability of legal representation. Artificial intelligence, augmented intelligence, and automation are all contributing to a reduction in the justice gap. In fact, as of 2018 there were over 300 legal technology solutions in the U.S. focused on bringing justice to the masses, and given the 1,369 legaltech patents in 2019, clearly the velocity of innovation has not waned.
Following COVID-19-driven lockdowns, courtrooms at the local, state, and federal level were shuttered and cases slammed to a halt across the nation and the world. People across the globe turned to videoconferencing platforms like Skype, Zoom, Teams, and Webex to keep us connected personally, professionally, and yes even legally in the following weeks.
“Virtual justice” the preferred term for virtualized courtroom proceedings powered by telephonic and video conferencing tech, revolutionized the courts in a way the classically Luddite sphere has not previously seen. This rapid shift to remote court proceedings led to some unforgettable moments including the “flush heard ‘round the country” during a Supreme Court argument and the viral video of one poor attorney pleading with the judge that he was “not a cat” after he could not remove a despondent cat filter during proceedings.
Despite the learning curve and some concerns around the detrimental impact video might have on connecting with witnesses and counsel, the net result has been a positive one for many. Witnesses, jurors, and even the accused no longer must miss work in order to go to court and attorneys can balance cases across the city from the touch of a cell phone. In addition, historically underserved regions and people are gaining access to their day in court through these virtualized proceedings. The virtual justice approach is not without its challenges and risks, but the potential for global access to justice remains encouraging.
There is an app for that
Even before the pandemic, the shift to online support was alive and well in the legal industry with organizations like Your Lawyers Online and My Virtual Lawyer offering consumers direct access to a complete virtual law firm composed of online legal providers specializing in divorce, probate, businessm and animal law. Offering a combination of legal education, online legal advice from certified legal professionals, and more traditional referrals, this type of service brings legal advice right to individuals.
Global law firm Freshfields developed CourtNav as a portal for people seeking support in divorce proceedings to connect directly with pro bono attorneys and Hello Divorce supports soup to nuts divorce filings for a low monthly fee without requiring a face-to-face consultation. And these organizations are just the tip of the iceberg for virtual legal support that is just a swipe or click away.
ADR become ODR
Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is far from a new solution to traditional courtroom backlogs, but the pandemic accelerated the shift from in person ADR to its web-based cousin Online dispute resolution (ODR). ODR has been gaining traction since the mid-2010s as a result of increasing court virtualization and reliance on tech-enabled legal education and decision making.
eBay, Alibaba, and other global retailers have relied on ODR for years and the pandemic thrust this emerging methodology on the main stage. The courtroom backlog and shuttering pushed many legal issues into the ODR space, resulting in lower costs for both parties, more expedient resolution and better access to justice beyond purely in the courtroom. The ABA hopes this shift of embracing ODR continues beyond the pandemic.
Speed to evidence
One of the most impactful uses of technology in civil litigation and criminal proceedings is the use of AI and advanced legal technology, like DISCO, to dramatically accelerate steed to key evidence at a fraction of the cost a brute force review approach would require. Cloud-based, AI-powered technology has fundamentally impacted the cost of uncovering key evidence in cases. Pricing has gone from thousands of dollars per GB to a fraction of that, and the technology being leveraged can make impactful insights in terms of key concepts, communication patterns, and missing evidence before the first document is reviewed.
DISCO has applied its advanced technology to everything from the raging opioid epidemic to election claims, the environment to immigration, and other pressing pro bono matters over the least several years. The application of advanced tech helped people who may have been scared away from the courts by cost and time constraints have their day in court armed with the impactful evidence their cases required all in a fraction of the time and cost.
AI-powered risk detection
Understanding whether you even need legal representation or have a cause of action is not always something that is cut and dry especially if you are in a vulnerable position. New applications of AI-powered risk detection are being used for certain vulnerable populations like the elderly and victims of abuse to help inform them of their rights and provide them access to legal support. Social workers and the elderly can use the Legal Risk Detector app to uncover elder abuse and make recommendations to secure legal services. And the rAInbow app helps potential victims of domestic violence determine if they require legal assistance. For people who may be unsure of their legal rights or simply overwhelmed by the legal system, this sort of application serves as a great entry point to begin getting help.
Power to the portal
The justice gap is about more than just access to the courtroom, it is also about the gap in education about legal rights and remedies individuals may have. Web-based portals bridge this gap by providing access to understandable explanations of legal issues and resources but in terms of forms and people to support their legal journey. The ABA has constructed portals for people who are seeking legal guidance but cannot afford legal counsel. Even state and local governments are getting in on the portal action with sites like LegalNav providing accessible and searchable resources for people seeking access to statewide legal portals to direct individuals with civil legal needs. Powered by AI and the brian child of Microsoft and Legal Services Corporation (LSC), the tool has an aim to “use technology to provide some meaningful help to everyone with an essential civil legal problem and ensures that no one is ever turned away with no help at all”
There are some applications that completely forgo the hum side of legal services, offering AI-powered support for certain simple legal issues. The AI-powered robot lawyer behind the website Do Not Pay has overturned over hundreds of thousands of tickets and millions in fines and counting without a single legal hour billed to a living attorney! While more complex matters will certainly still require legal human intervention, these chatbot tools offer legal services to many who would have no other alternative recourse.
Connecting to counsel
One of the most daunting things for people seeking legal guidance is finding who the right professional is to help their unique needs. In a sea of advertisements, who can actually guide you through the legal process? For LGBTQ asylum seekers in countries where the penalty for the “crime” of who you love may be death, the stakes are beyond high. The platform nonprofit AsylumConnect is leveraging open source technology to connect LGBTQ asylum seekers with verified LGBTQ- and immigrant-friendly lawyers and other service providers in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Probono.net, Paladin, and Lawyers Serving Warriors all serve to offer access to qualified legal professionals for people in various groups.
There has been an explosion of user-friendly online forms that people can fill out by themselves in the last decade, with LegalZoom as one of the 800-pound behemoths in the space. This self-empowered approach to the legal needs of many is one of the most cost-effective methods for making justice accessible.
AI and more advanced document automation capabilities enable firms or nonprofits to convert documents into easy-to-use web-based questionnaires that individuals and attorneys can use to generate the forms they need. Given the intense resource and time constraint that many NGO face, these tools in the context of asylum seekers in particular can be a game changer.
Looking to the future
Technological innovation may be spooky to many, but in the context of access to justice we might want to think of it more like our fairy godmother! Underlying socioeconomic concerns and gender, racial, and geographic disparities still plague global access to justice, but the application of these technologies today and whatever is to come in the future means that millions of people will not face legal challenges without legal support.