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Legal advice for those on low incomes

View profile for Casian Sala

With no sign of austerity measures loosening their grip, the headlines are rarely free of evidence that those most economically disadvantaged feel the cuts most deeply. Recent scandals relating to the number of food banks opening nationwide, and the increasing reliance of even working families on food banks to sustain them through periods of financial difficulty, are evidence of a persisting inequality in society.

And it’s not only the essentials of food and shelter that are getting increasingly beyond the grasp of the most poorly-paid: legal advice is at risk of becoming a privilege accorded only those with a fairly reasonable income.

Legal professionals across many practice areas – from family law and personal injury to crime – are finding new ways to ensure their services are accessible to all, and there is an ongoing trend to circumvent traditional practices of costly and time-consuming meetings by making the most of legal tech. In some cases firms are building purely online services, and offering digital services at a minimal cost as a supplement to their conventional practice.

A recent report on the digital delivery of legal services appeals directly to the government to provide funding to ensure that those on low incomes are equipped with the means to settle small claims online – without having to hire the services of a legal professional, an option beyond the means of many.

 The report, Digital Delivery of Legal Services to People on Low Incomes (which is available online, and does bear reading in full), is backed by the Legal Education Foundation, and draws on several international models of digital legal provision. It sets out a number of recommendations for government and the regulators on how to ensure those most disadvantaged in society are not effectively ‘priced out’ of justice.

These include:

  • A recommendation that there should be a pilot digitised dispute resolution scheme, building on exemplar schemes in Canada and the Netherlands;
  • That 1% of the annual legal aid budget should be used to create an innovation fund to spur on further developments in digital tech – a proposal modelled on the USA’s Technology Initiative Grants programme; and
  • To learn from overseas models designed to tackle problems arising from the withdrawal of legal aid services.

Inevitably, the report highlights the crucial importance of legal tech innovations in facilitating equal access to justice across the socio-economic spectrum. It calls for better funding for advice websites offering effective, free, accurate and up-to-date advice nationwide, and enabling agencies such as the Legal Aid Agency to invest resources in legal digital innovation.

At Legastat, our professional litigation support services are built on many years’ experience of traditional working practices – but we remain at the forefront of legal tech innovation, and welcome any efforts to ensure legal practitioners use digital innovation to expand and enhance their services.