I recently had the pleasure of attending the Civil Justice Council's 12th National Forum. The focus of this event was improving access to justice in a cost of living crisis, and I took part in some thought-provoking panel sessions to discuss the challenges and potential solutions around this subject.
Having worked for HM Courts & Tribunal Services, providing everyone with access to justice is a topic I am incredibly passionate about. I believe technology has an important role to play in providing the solutions we need, including reducing the barriers to justice and improving efficiencies in the system.
Building the digital inside
For me, there are three key categories we need to look at to improve access to justice through technology. The first is digital inside, which involves focussing on streamlining organisational processes, removing paper-based ways of working and automating tasks within our justice institutions and legal sector. This is not exactly a groundbreaking idea, after all, digitising and automation has been going on in the sector since the 90’s. But despite these changes, there are still too many processes which are paper-based that could be digitised to improve efficiency.
Focussing on the digital inside is primarily about generating savings to expand reach and serve more people. Business process automation and further digitisation will free up time for those working within the system and to do more with the limited resources at their disposal. At the same time, increasing this digital transformation can unlock valuable data and insights, which can be used to better inform decisions on where changes can be made to produce improved outcomes.
Improving the digital experience
The second category is the digital experience, which focuses on the external services these institutions offer and how people interact with them. Moving more processes online provides us with an opportunity to reset how justice services are accessed for the better. It can simplify the entire process, making services easier for people to use and understand. This will provide individuals with the ability to manage their case themselves, ensuring these are progressed as quickly as possible and that they can monitor what is happening in real-time.
Improving the digital experience can also improve access to justice. For example, providing virtual hearings will make it easier for people who have to balance things such as work or childcare.
Finally, the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI) provides a huge opportunity for the sector. These technologies, in my view, provide us with the biggest opportunity as they can remove complications in a way that traditional digital solutions can’t.
For instance, skilled legal staff are in short supply, especially in the context of rising costs and tightening budgets. Tools like generative AI (GenAI) can take on tasks such as providing some legal advice or formatting and helping people complete legal applications. These tools would greatly improve efficiency while also easing the burden on departments needing to find and bring in new staff.
It can also be difficult for people to articulate their situation to a structured online form. If these individuals were able to explain in their own words what their issues are to an AI assistant which could take this information, analyse it, and explain what they need to do, it would make the justice process simpler and much more accessible.
However, this is not to say AI doesn’t come with its own set of challenges. As mentioned, these platforms would make the justice system more accessible, which in itself could create a huge surge in demand for services. This means that government departments and our broader legal system needs to be ready to meet this demand by embracing the right technologies as soon as possible.
Access to justice is a right that is and should be afforded to every citizen. Though the cost of living crisis has affected most of us, including our institutions, that doesn’t mean people’s ability to receive the legal support and services they need should be limited. Through embracing technology and digital innovation, we can ensure our justice system is set up to meet the needs of everyone, even in the most difficult of times.
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