From Digitization to Transformation

By Claire Donse of DLA Piper for PILnet

Reeling from the impact of social distancing measures, most of the legal service providers are still adapting to remote working, and moving the traditional services that they deliver online. Those that are unable to adapt may soon cease to exist. Meanwhile the demand on existing organizations will increase, as the world struggles with the restructuring of the economy and the financial system. Finding efficiencies will be even more critical to meeting demand.

Following the introduction of the EU’s alternative dispute resolution directive in 2013, the European Commission’s FIN-NET service provides online dispute resolution, and assists individuals living in the European Union, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Norway in resolving claims against financial service providers out of court. The UK Financial Services Ombudsman provides a similar service, resolving hundreds of thousands of complaints each year. These mechanisms provide simple and cost effective methods to resolve every day disputes, in circumstances in which an efficient and timely answer in a dispute that involves a relatively small amount is often of critical importance to the complainant.

In the commercial space, UK based Resolver provides online dispute resolution services for a range of companies around the UK. Resolver was set up to assist consumers to resolve disputes with the government departments and businesses. It is being used by consumers to seek refunds for events and travel that have been cancelled as a result of the coronavirus. Resolver does not charge fees, but collects data and shares insights with businesses who are the subject of the complaints, helping them to resolve the dispute but also providing the companies, for a fee, with information on current trends, assisting with customer retention and reducing costs. They also add value by providing comparative analytics, allowing companies to benchmark their performance, identify areas for improvement, and receive early warning of potential issues.

Data can also help guide where to allocate legal assistance resources. In the UK, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CAB) reported a record 2.4 million pageviews in the last week of March. The CAB’s chief analyst tweeted about the searches being conducted on its website, which evolved over the course of the month from questions about sick pay, to questions about redundancies, followed by searches about debt. The CAB responded by creating a series of coronavirus pages. The organization’s homepage shows a leaderboard of searches conducted on the website that, at the time of writing this, shows trending topics all related to coronavirus, including ‘options if you are told not to work’, and ‘what benefits are available’.

The CABs efforts are a good illustration of how data can be used to anticipate and respond to needs. While the pandemic serves to highlight inequalities across and within countries, these online services can provide valuable opportunities to collect better data about some of these inequalities, and to advocate for change.

Governments are also being forced to rethink their approaches to bureaucracy. In Australia, many long term residents were reluctant to leave the country before they had their Australian citizenship papers. To obtain citizenship, qualifying candidates are legally required to make a pledge of commitment to the country before a presiding officer. Newspapers report that there are currently 85,000 people awaiting a ceremony. In the wake of the pandemic, and to expedite the process, physical citizenship ceremonies are no longer taking place, and are being replaced instead by virtual ceremonies, which will allow up to 750 people per day to have their citizenship conferred.

Prior to the pandemic, the discussion around justice and technology often revolved around the need to build specialized systems to support legal operations. Given the speed at which the virus spread, actors have been forced to adopt existing commercial technology instead, and many seem to be finding it largely fit for purpose. This mirrors one of the main themes that came out of the Access to Justice and Technology Summit that DLA Piper and PILnet co-hosted in June last year – that the technology and infrastructure already exists, and it is up to the legal sector to leverage and adapt the technology to the need.

In the medium to long term, as we adapt to the new normal, as a sector we will need to collect feedback and data on how this ‘unscheduled experiment’ has worked. We would be wise to rethink the administration and delivery of justice. Technology, which often has been put to the test in a very reactive manner, will be the lens through which much of this thinking will need to be accomplished. We will need to consider what we can do with technology beyond moving meetings and hearings online, to look at what user feedback and data tell us about efficiencies, effectiveness and demand in the justice system, and how technology can improve and amplify services and meet needs. Important considerations such as privacy and transparency will also need to be examined.

Most legal systems are rooted in tradition, and have never considered the question of what needs to be done in person, by people, versus what can be done remotely, using technology. As justice actors adapt they will experience the convenience and connectivity that technology can provide, and the positive impacts it can have in relation to efficiency, cost and time. An unexpected outcome of the 2019/2020 coronavirus pandemic may be a crash course in the possibilities of technology, and potentially a global reimagination of the underlying tenants of the justice system, to create a more efficient, and hopefully more inclusive, system for the next century.

Claire Donse leads the DLA Piper’s pro bono program in Africa, Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and the UK. Claire also works with New Perimeter, DLA Piper’s international pro bono initiative and nonprofit affiliate.