In January 2020, the High Court ruled that amicable's LawTech model created to help separating and divorcing couples to separate amicably has a vital role to play in promoting and promulgating access to justice.
The High Court Judge, Mr Justice Mostyn said “There can be no doubt that the initiative of amicable has greatly improved access to justice for many people effectively disenfranchised from the legal process by the near total withdrawal of legal aid from private family law proceedings on 1 April 2013”.
Evidence such as Legal Geek start-up map suggests there are fewer consumer facing LawTech start-ups than those developing tech to help other lawyers. amicable’s mission from its inception has been to ‘change the way the world divorces’ and to do that with a relentless focus on the consumer and enabling their access to justice.
amicable is a divorce services company. We offer a tech-based, lawyer free alternative for divorcing and separating couples. Like many consumer facing LawTech start-ups our founding team aren’t lawyers. We’re unique in the family law world because we work with couples not individuals (something lawyers traditionally have not been able to do) and something the recent High Court judgment has ratified as lawful in our case. We use automation and AI to handle the legal elements of a divorce leaving a human to help couples to navigate the emotional journey of parting ways. We fuse technology and psychology to create a delivery model that celebrates the human and the machine and doesn’t promote one at the expense of the other.
Our philosophy is simple – the law (and for us that means family law) should be accessible to everyone. And by that we mean affordable, understandable, and reachable. In the past the family law was accessible through a set of gatekeepers – solicitors. They were affordable because of the wide provision of legal aid. The law was understandable because Solicitors acted as translators for their clients (with varying degrees of success!) And people knew how to access the law – they went to the high street and found a solicitor. Fast forward to 2013 and removal of legal aid for all but the most serious cases of domestic abuse or violence, and the democratic right of access to justice has been removed from great swathes of the population.
You’d think this would kick start a revolution. A rich vein of opportunity for LawTech to right a wrong and to have social purpose. But whilst FinTech has democratised banking, created and re-distributed wealth and provided choice – LawTech simple hasn’t developed a strong enough consumer agenda. According to research by Oxford University (Sako, Parnham & Qian), the ecosystem is fragmented; the focus is on providing software to other law firms and ‘revolution’ has been to automate current processes and production of documents. These aren’t bad things – but they aren’t a revolution either and they aren’t challenging or forcing a re-interpretation of our laws which is necessary for society to evolve.
In his latest book, Richard Susskind gives an insight as to why LawTech has been an evolution rather than a revolution in an example about online courts:
“As a general principle, if an online court service is intended mainly for use by lay people, then as few rules as possible should be made explicit to the user. The system should hide complexity and so make navigation through the law or legal processes as intelligible as possible for the non-lawyer…”
Herein lies the issue – lawyers are all about the complexity, the rules, the nuances of the law and making things explicit – the skillset ‘lawyer’ doesn’t sit easily with what seems to be required. The language that is everyday parlance to a legal professional, that feels ‘normal’ is often indecipherable to a lay person. Even as a non-lawyer it creeps in and I see this from being part of our company induction process. Watching new people join and struggle with the terminology we use. It’s not surprising then that legal firms have tended to focus on workflow and driving margin. And of course, if your model is hourly billing, then it makes a lot of sense.
Access to justice is never going to be driven by a profession that bills by the hour. It just doesn’t compute. The goals are contradictory. So, a revolution in business models must precede the mass embracing of access to justice by the profession. It needs to be underpinned by something more than rhetoric. I believe LawTech provides opportunities to change the model of how you make money and therefore to create a financial incentive as well as a moral one to create a fair and justice society where everyone has access to justice.
The ratification of new models by the High Court and specifically our model is a very important step on the road to ensuring the legal profession takes on more than just the words ‘access to justice’.