Justice Talk with Mark Beer, OBE: Crossing the Justice Chasm with Technology

A legal tech legend talks with Jur about the justice chasm, how tech will help bridge the gap on access to justice, and the future of legal tech.

What’s going on in the legal and justice tech market in 2021? We asked some key opinion leaders and futurists who are shaping the industry.

Mark Beer, OBE: a living legend of legal and justice tech

There is no one-liner to describe Mark Beer, OBE. He is a living legend in the legal tech space.

One may introduce him as a futurist, a lawyer, a strategic advisor. Or the co-founder of the University of Oxford’s Deep Technology Dispute Resolution Lab. Why not, former President of the International Association for Court Administration. Perhaps, one could mention his 2020 nomination as the Legal Personality of the Year by the Law Society Excellence Awards.

Thing is, Mark has gained many recognitions which made us wonder what he thinks is the most important one. 

Democratize justice, one step at a time

Mark takes a moment to think about it. You could imagine him scrolling through the list of items he has won over his outstanding career. But then, he tells us: “There is not a single thing that I am most pleased about.” The humblest answer you could ever expect from such a personality. For Mark, each step towards raising awareness and helping people understand the value of technology to justice is an achievement. “One out of seven people on the planet, every year, faces a serious legal issue. That’s about a billion people a year. We need to help investors, technologists, platform owners, law societies, lawyers, and everyone who understands tech to mobilize and help these billion people a year who can’t afford or don’t use the traditional system. Each step towards climbing that mountain together, towards democratizing justice, is an achievement.”

The justice chasm

According to Mark, the current system is failing the vast majority of people. “There is a justice chasm between those who need help and protection and the ability of society to help. A global survey undertaken by the Hague Institute for the Innovation of Law showed that 95% of people with a serious legal issue did not use the state infrastructure provided to help them. That made me think: are we likely to transform the court system in a short period of time to serve the 95% left behind?” If we can’t change the court system fast enough, the only possible answer to helping access justice is technology, according to Mark. “Technology is universal. More people have access to the internet than justice. It’s ubiquitous. It sits on people’s devices. And it could give people access to legal resolution tools that go beyond any court or legal system. That’s why technology is likely to fill the justice chasm.

The law is for helping people

Legal technology offers enhanced access to legal solutions for a wider audience. In essence, that’s the reason why Mark moved towards a career in law. “Many people enter law for the wrong reasons. They think the law is all about winning, losing, and driving fancy cars, as you see in shows like Suits. In my day, it was L.A. Law.” According to an old article in The New York Times, L.A. Law “perhaps more than any other force, has come to shape public perceptions about lawyers and the legal system”. “People who enter the legal industry for the money tend to be the worst ones. The right reason to join the legal industry, like those who join a medical profession, is to help people. The law is a framework that allows society to operate in the best way. So I went into law very much with the idea that the law was there to help people.” Unfortunately, not everybody shares this view.

Ways to cross the chasm

Simply put, we need to help people cross the justice chasm – the gap between the justice system and the needs of the citizens of justice. But how? One way is to use online dispute resolution to solve civil disputes regardless of physical presence. As we all know, Covid-19 hindered all physical services from working properly. Courts and tribunals are no exceptions.

According to IBA (International Bar Association), nearly all the world’s jurisdictions had to respond to the severe disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. This meant a substantial impact on the daily life of everyone involved in the legal system. As Fide Fundacion reports, in over the three UK jurisdictions, thousands of court hearings have been replaced by virtual hearings, via telephone, or video conferencing links. Most judges and lawyers had to make a huge adjustment as they conducted hearings in virtual courtrooms through platforms such as Skype, Zoom, or the Kinly Cloud Video Platform. With sometimes tragicomic effects, such as the case of the zoom filter that turned a lawyer into a cat during an official video hearing. Incidents like these indicate the lack of effective technology and digital literacy of some of those involved. This also proves the need for systemic intervention to improve the now obvious elephant (or cat!) in the room.

Why the law isn’t disrupted yet?

With its many obvious problems, how then are traditional courts and arbitration centers not disrupted yet? Mark is clear about it: “Lawyers don’t like it.” ODR adoption faces two main challenges. First, a widespread reluctance to innovate in the legal industry. Second, the lack of investment in the legal tech industry.

For what concerns the first one, “even though the US is digital-savvy and tech-oriented, the legal profession shuns concepts like AI-based advice and the democratization of justice. Lawyers struggle to agree and refuse to accept that these processes are valuable. Many would argue that tech-derived advice and guidance are to the detriment of their clients. They would say that private sector dispute resolution isn’t as effective as state-led dispute resolutions.”

For investments, on the other hand, “until recently very little money has gone into legal technology. The initiation of FinTech was quite similar. Banks were uncomfortable with the idea, at first.” A way to break the ice is through accessibility and usability. Banks didn’t wake up one day and decided to be more customer-centric — it was a whole process. For Mark, the FinTech market accelerated when regulators got quite involved to impress the need for a change. “The challenge with lawyers is that they tend to regulate themselves. In many countries, Lawyers run the Law Societies that regulate the lawyers, the Bar Association, etc.” So if the first challenge with adoption is reluctance, the second is investments. However, Mark notes that investments in legal tech startups are rising today.

Digitalizing courts, a trend here to stay?

Despite facing the mistrust of the establishment, digitalizing courts and online dispute resolution have almost become a buzzword, nowadays. Initiatives such as Remote Courts by Susskind’s (the undiscussed guru of online dispute resolution) are proof of the rising concerns of the current system’s inability to deal with the present. Remote Courts help the global community of justice workers – judges, lawyers, court officials, litigants, court technologists – to share their experiences of ‘remote’ alternatives to traditional court hearings. The UK government has recently moved towards the definition of an SME dispute resolution platform to deal with late payments in the UK. Things are moving, but are these trends here to stay? 

“The momentum has been accelerated by Covid, of course,” Mark says. “Will the momentum slow as the traditional system reopens? Part of me says: It might not. The backlogs are so severe now that courts and arbitration processes have to be improved.” The traditional way to solve this issue is to throw more judges to deal with the backlog of cases, thus more money to deal with the problem. But this wouldn’t bring any transformative change to justice for dealing with the severe backlog. Moreover, this approach doesn’t solve the problem that shows how 95% of people with serious legal problems who do not use the Courtscannot access legal services. That’s why Mark thinks that online solutions are likely to grow in the future. “We are going to see the rise of private-sector dispute avoidance and dispute resolution processes, which deal with the settlement, conciliation, and mediation to some extent. The justice chasm is too wide and deep now to hope for the State to be able to help it in a quick fashion. Thus, private sector-led online dispute platforms will come into place. Businesses and individuals will realize that it is a more effective way to solve their problems.”

Mark’s recipe to impact the judiciary system is clear: let’s focus on looking at the 95% of people who do not have adequate access to justice, and not the 5% who do.

Increasing accessibility through human-centered design

Increasing access to justice is Jur’s mantra. For Mark, user experience is absolutely critical. “The more complicated you make access to justice, the fewer people will use it.”

It is a well-known story. Whenever you have an innovation, a quarrel between traditionalists vs futurists arises. “Traditionalists want the user interface of a legal tech service to deal with listing all the issues details all at once. Upload all the evidence, certify relevant complaints, etc. Futurists reply: why? Because it is the only way to consider it a valid claim, traditionalists reply. But with this, many people will then have to turn to a confusing number of pages and navigate around them. Hence, justice becomes less accessible. The legal community forgets how people believe the system is inaccessible. The correct user experience would be the one that lets you tell your story the best way you want. Why are you here today? What is the problem you are facing? Give us as little or as many details as you want.”

When justice acquires a user-friendly interface, you will see people use it as if they were explaining their problem to their friends. “This is how you lend up to happy parties or people,” Mark concludes. 

Simply put, it is through user experience that we can make the law better.

Trends in the legal technology industry

To a professional with a bird’s eye view of the industry, we had to ask what are the trends in legal tech in 2021. “One significant trend is a much greater investment in the sector. The curve is exponentially rising now. In 2021, I predict that it will double, or triple compared to 2019. This is the time when people are building very efficient solutions via tech to solve very inefficient processes. That’s what happened with FinTech. The costly and inefficient process overlays of the traditional banking system banking, charging tens of Dollars to send messages to each other, became unjustifiable can’t get along in a world where there is Whatsapp.” We believe the legal processes can be made less frustrating too. And for these reasons, investments will come. 

The bottom line? More solutions to improve access to justice — an endeavor Jur is firmly committed to achieving.

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