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How technology is helping the UK improve legal assistance

By Anna Simmonds, Head of Commercial at Sparqa Legal

The English legal system has traditionally been regarded as one of the most respected in the world;with a top-quality bar and independent judiciary, it is the jurisdiction of choice for global business deals and the resolution of international disputes.

However, it is also horribly overstretched.The legal aid advice network has been decimated by funding cuts and a severe lack of access to affordable legal services exist.

How does this affect small businesses?

Fewer than 10% of people experiencing legal problems instruct solicitors, and with top lawyers charging up to £1,000 per hour, it is no surprise that two thirds of people feel that legal services are too expensive.

Whilst small businesses typically face 8 legal issues a year, 83% see legal services as unaffordable and prefer to address it alone to save costs. And yet, the information available online is often limited or misleading. Of course, ignorance of the law is no excuse and the stakes are high for businesses who get it wrong. For example, companies who fail to get Employer’s Liability insurance can be fined £2,500 for every day they are not insured and the fines for failure to comply with data protection regulations can be up to 20 million euros or 4% of annual turnover (whichever is greater).  The conundrum is businesses may not be able to afford traditional legal services, but they also cannot afford to bury their heads in the sand.

How can technology help?

Anna Simmonds
Anna Simmonds

It is unsurprising that barriers to accessing quality legal assistance leave individuals vulnerable and businesses at risk. But, now technology can offer a solution.

Technological innovations have the potential to democratise legal services by reducing costs, freeing up lawyers’ time and empowering people to service their own legal needs.

From chatbots and information platforms that provide advice on simple legal issues to the digitalisation of courts and automation of crucial yet time intensive tasks, technological developments are beginning to positively impact the legal system.

While the justice system has often been slow to innovate, HM Courts &Tribunals Service is currently embarking on a £1 billion digital reform process which is working to overhaul the way justice is administered.Many court services have already moved online and there will be a continued move away from paper-based systems to digital solutions.

Whilst many legal tech solutions aim to help solicitors do their jobs more efficiently, they are also increasingly being targeted at individuals who are more and more willing to do some of the groundwork themselves.

Digital law platforms remove the need to seek out face to face legal advice based on proximity and instead widen the pool of services to which individuals have access. Trusted, centralised sources of legal information can be relied on by individuals and businesses to serve many day-to-day needs without ever needing to formally engage a lawyer.

So, does this mean the end for lawyers?

No; there will of course always be a role for specialised legal advice. Rather than being feared as a threat to traditional law firms, technology can be used to complement the expertise of legal professionals, freeing up time from more mundane tasks to focus on delivering high quality advice.There are countless examples of innovations improving the way lawyers work:

  • Natural language processing is facilitating smarter legal research processes
  • E-discovery is cutting down on the cost of lawyers required to assist on large scale document review projects
  • Digital contracts make the whole process more streamlined and cost effective and enable people to do business anywhere in the world without delay.

These efficiencies can all be passed on to clients, resulting in the provision of a more affordable and thus, more accessible legal service.

What can we expect in future?

As engagement with legal technologies increases, not only will lawyers’ fees become more competitive, but we expect to see a growing trend of businesses accessing legal services on a subscription basis. Businesses are likely to be attracted by the transparent charging model and the security and agility that 24/7 remote access to support provides them.These new models will set the stage for a new operations model, provide lawyers more opportunities for remote and flexible work and a solution to the expensive overheads associated with running large law firms, particularly in prime central London locations.

Today the market for legal technology is thriving with £1 bn global investment in legal technology last year. In the UK alone, investment into the sector has tripled in recent years, reaching over £62 million in 2019. The UK is now home to 44 percent of all legal tech start-ups in the EU.

As the UK legal tech market rapidly grows, it is estimated that by embracing these new technological developments productivity growth could be doubled. This has the potential to close the justice gap.As the legal system remains overstretched, technology has the potential to level out the playing field and improve access to effective, reliable and affordable options for those who would otherwise have been priced out.