This is a notable entry from the Justis International Law & Technology Writing Competition 2019 in the category of Access to Justice and Technology, by Oluwatobi Taiwo of Nottingham Law School. Find out more about our next competition’s topics here.
CODE RED! CODE RED! The legal system is failing.
Access to justice in the United Kingdom (UK) is at a critical level. Although it seems like barristers and solicitors say this every year, it is true. For the past several years, access to justice in the UK has declined significantly. In a recent speech in Chicago, UK Supreme Court Justice, Lord Wilson stated that ‘access to justice is under threat in the UK’. This powerful statement from a sitting member of the judiciary highlights the severity of the situation and emphasises the need for change.
In comparison to other departments, government spending on justice – i.e. prisons, courts, judges, prosecutors and legal aid – has been cut by 27% in real terms over the years. Due to this lack of funding and legal aid cuts, many people have been unable to access basic legal help and representation. This situation has also been exacerbated by the enactment of Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012. LASPO introduced crippling cuts to legal aid and made it more difficult for people to get civil legal aid funding.
Despite the petitions and pleas from various professional legal bodies and members of the public to repeal LASPO, not much has changed. The legal system is literally on life support, and without significant changes and innovation, it will surely flat-line and crash.
Effects of insufficient access to justice
Firstly, if you commit a crime or need civil legal help, it is extremely unlikely that you will be able to access affordable legal representation or qualify for legal aid. Under the current means test for criminal legal aid, applicants with a household disposable income of £37,500 or more are automatically ineligible for legal aid funding for a Magistrates’ or Crown court trial. Likewise, to be eligible for civil legal aid, applicants must have a gross monthly income of £2657 or less and a maximum disposable income of £733 per month. These stringent requirements make it very hard for low-medium income individuals to qualify for legal aid.
Secondly, the lack of access to justice is increasing inequality between the rich and poor. In the words of the Law Society’s President, Christina Blacklaws, ‘...justice now exists only for the wealthy, or the small number on very low incomes lucky enough to find a solicitor willing and able to fight a mountain of red tape to secure legal aid’. However, this is wrong. Justice should not be dependent on the size of a person’s pocketbook or reserved exclusively for the wealthy. It should be accessible to all.
Thirdly, the lack of legal aid funding is causing ‘legal aid deserts’ to develop in large parts of England and Wales. These are areas of law where lawyers no longer work because they cannot afford to. It is also discouraging newly qualified and existing lawyers from entering certain practice areas.
All of these things signify a large departure from a system that was once hailed as a shining example of legal excellence and used as a model for other legal jurisdictions around the world.
So, in light of these circumstances, what can be done to revive access to justice in the UK?
Legal technology has the potential to be a huge game-changer in the fight for access to justice. Over the last few years, legal technology has revolutionised the way the English legal industry and legal system works. Artificial technology (AI), machine learning, and predictive algorithms are now commonplace and lawyers are actively using legal technology to assist them with their workload.
Although most of the recent legal tech developments have been for commercial purposes, legal technology is also being used to improve access to justice. Legal technology applications and chatbots, like Do Not Pay, are enabling people to access free legal advice, find affordable legal representation, and gain a better understanding of the law. In fact, a new legal app (LegalDefence) has just been developed that offers consumers a full range of legal advice for £24 a month. Yes, you read that right. Just £24 a month.
Even simple inventions like electronic document signatures (i.e. DocuSign) are helping to reduce the cost of legal services.
Moreover, the introduction of the new online courts will make it easier for people to access justice in a cost-efficient and timely manner. It will also enable self-represented litigants to confidently represent themselves and navigate through the court system.
As you can see, legal technology has the capacity to demystify the law and improve access to justice for all. However, the UK is a bit behind in the legal tech revolution. Countries like Asia and Australia have already capitalised on legal tech and are far ahead of the game.
Nonetheless, the key thing is that we start using legal technology as a solution to the access to justice crisis. As society evolves, the delivery of legal services must evolve too. Fortunately, more companies and law firms are starting to see the value of legal technology and are investing in it. Therefore, we might just be able to revive access to justice in the UK.
Oluwatobi is a Nigerian-Canadian student completing her LLM LPC at Nottingham Law School. She will be starting her training contract with Howes Percival in September 2019.
 Lord Wilson, ‘Our Human Rights: A Joint Effort?’ (The Howard J. Trienens Lecture, Chicago, 25 September 2018) <https://www.supremecourt.uk/docs/speech-180925.pdf> accessed 15 November 2018, 11
 Andrew Walker, ‘ Speech to Annual Bar And Young Bar Conference’ (Bar Council Annual Bar And Young Bar Conference, 24 November 2018) <https://www.barcouncil.org.uk/media/693814/awqc_chair_s_speech_to_annual_bar_conference_2018.pdf> accessed 30 November 2018, 5
 Legal Aid Agency, ‘Criminal Legal Aid: Means Testing’ (GOV.UK, 1 June 2014) <https://www.gov.uk/guidance/criminal-legal-aid-means-testing> accessed 30 November 2018
 Legal Aid Agency, ‘Civil Legal Aid: Means Testing’ (GOV.UK, 1 June 2014) <https://www.gov.uk/guidance/civil-legal-aid-means-testing> accessed 30 November 2018
 Owen Bowcott, ‘Justice ‘Only for the Wealthy’: Law Society Condemns Legal Aid Cuts’ Guardian (28 Sep 2018) <https://www.theguardian.com/law/2018/sep/28/justice-only-for-the-wealthy-law-society-warns-on-legal-aid-cuts> accessed 28 November 2018
 Law Society Gazette, ‘Legal Aid Deserts: MPs and Peers Express Grave Concerns’ The Law Society Gazette (18 July 2018)<https://www.lawgazette.co.uk/law/legal-aid-deserts-mps-and-peers-express-grave-concerns/5066933.article> accessed 30 November 2018
 Joint Committee on Human Rights, Enforcing Human Rights (2017-19, HL 171, HC 669) 3
 Jon Porter, ‘Robot Lawyer DoNotPay Now Lets You Sue Anyone via an App’ The Verge (10 October 2018) <https://www.theverge.com/2018/10/10/17959874/donotpay-do-not-pay-robot-lawyer-ios-app-joshua-browder> accessed 30 November 2018
 Neil Rose, ‘Slater & Gordon Backs App Offering Legal Advice for £24 a month’ Legal Futures (29 November 2018) <https://www.legalfutures.co.uk/latest-news/slater-gordon-backs-app-offering-legal-advice-for-24-a-month> accessed 29 Movember 2018