Technology: Tool or Barrier to Access to Justice

By Louis Dejeu-Castang

“The introduction of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO) together with local authority funding cuts has created an adverse environment which has resulted in half of the law centres or agencies offering free legal advice being closed”[1]. This striking statistic highlights the severity of the crisis facing access to justice in the UK. It highlights a void wherein the vital legal information, that used to be supplied by law centres, is no longer reaching those that need it most. To many, access to justice is now considered a luxury as opposed to a human right. However, technology, in spite of its power to connect, has several attributes that make it seem a poor tool for rectifying this problem. In the following essay I will present a number of drawbacks to the use of technology in furthering access to justice, before concluding that a greater emphasis should first be placed on improving access to technology-related skills rather than new legal technology itself.

Access to technology and access to justice:

Online chatbots providing legal advice, internet based alternative dispute resolution, or even just easy to navigate websites containing information about basic rights in law; the possibilities for using technology to improve access to justice certainly appear revolutionary at a first glance. Yet by consequence of the costly nature of legal representation, those most in need of support to have access to justice tend to be from groups that might not have access to technology and associated skills. A study by the ONS[2] looked into groups that tend to have limited internet access, identifying income, employment status and disability as key factors affecting access to technology.

a. Disability and access to justice

According to the BIICL, individuals with disabilities encounter “disproportionate socio-economic marginalisation, resulting in poorer health and medical treatment, lower quality of education and limited employment prospects.”[3] Socio-economic marginalisation can lead to a greater need for representation, particularly as austerity contributes to an increasingly unjust system of welfare allocation that largely affects those who depend on benefits to meet basic living costs. Barriers to education can further create a need for access to justice by undermining access to information about fundamental rights that might be necessary in order to identify cases of discrimination, or even hate crime. Imperative to achieving greater access to justice is ensuring that persons with disabilities have the facility to seek legal help when necessary, and to have easy access to information about the very laws that are in place to address the discrimination that disproportionately impacts individuals with protected characteristics.

b. Disability and access to technology

 Technology has an immense power to connect people, and to disseminate information in an accessible way. In spite of this obvious potential, lack of access to technology also disproportionately affects persons with disabilities. As shown in the figure below, despite only making up 22% of the UK population, 56% of adult internet non-users are disabled:

However, rather than solely being a cost-based issue, the same ONS study found that lack of technological expertise was a more common reason for not having internet access than the cost of hardware[4]. We are thus confronted with technology that appears perfectly suited to remedying accessibility issues, with advancements such as remote dispute resolution offering more accessible justice system by removing mobility related barriers to the law. Yet at the same time this very same technology seems uniquely unsuited to the demography of those seeking support with access to justice.

c. Income and access to justice 

Employment status and income are likewise factors that increase the likelihood that an individual might need support in accessing justice. Low-income households have been particularly affected by the legal aid cuts. Private disputes (for instance family law cases) have borne the brunt of these cuts. An investigation by The Guardian found that the consequences of austerity included victims of domestic abuse being more frequently exposed to cross-examination by abusive partners, and the inhibition of low-income individuals from seeking justice in areas such as clinical negligence, housing, debt, education, and employment[5]. Additionally, low-income households are more likely to be involved in rental disputes, particularly with landlords often being what housing charity Shelter has described as “hostile towards housing benefit claimants”[6].

d. Income and access to technology 

In spite of the disproportionate need for resources supporting access to justice in low-income households, ONS/Carnegie Trust research shows that a significant proportion of low-income households do not have access to the internet:

As much as online resources linking internet users with legal information or directly with lawyers might in theory help make up for the rapid decline in legal centres across the UK, the digital exclusion of low-income households who would likely benefit from legal help remains a major obstacle using technology to improve access to justice. Additionally, given that access to internet at home has shown to be linked with a statistically significant improvement on both GCSE[7] and standardised tests[8][9], improving access to technology is not only an avenue to a more just society through allowing access to legal technology, its potential contribution towards social mobility might well attack some of the root causes of broader societal injustice.

Resolving the digital divide – an integral part of access to justice:

In conclusion, whilst technology provides numerous exciting solutions to the barriers to access to justice, there is also a need for a broader campaign promoting computer-skills and access to technology. There is a danger that those most in need of support in accessing justice could be left behind in the excitement to promote new technology and software. As soon as access to justice becomes contingent on access to technology, the latter essentially becomes a human right. The first step towards accessing the potential created by new legal technologies would be a nation-wide, community-based, program of accessible computer skills classes. To deny the importance of technology to the future of access to justice would be ignorant, but so too would be to ignore the need for access to technology.

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[1] The Law Society; “Technology, Access to Justice and the Rule of Law” (September 2019)

[2] P Serafino, Ons.gov.uk. (2019). “Exploring the UK’s digital divide – Office for National Statistics.” [online] Available at: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/articles/exploringtheuksdigitaldivide/2019-03-04#what-are-the-barriers-to-digital-inclusion [Accessed 5 Mar. 2020].

[3] J Beqiraj, L McNamara and V Wicks; “Access to justice for persons with disabilities: From international principles to practice” (2017)

[4] Office for National Statistics – Internet Access, Opinions and Lifestyle Survey (OPN); Figure 17 – https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/householdcharacteristics/homeinternetandsocialmediausage/articles/exploringtheuksdigitaldivide/2019-03-04#what-are-the-barriers-to-digital-inclusion

[5] O Bowcott, A Hill,  P Duncan; “Revealed: legal aid cuts forcing parents to give up fight for children”, The Guardian (December 2018)

[6] “Shut out: The barriers low-income households face in private renting”, Shelter.org (June 2017)

[7] Chowdry, H. et al (2010) The role of attitudes and behaviours in explaining socio-economic differences in attainment at age 16. Institute for Fiscal Studies

[8] Jackson et al (2006) Does Home Internet Use Influence the Academic Performance of Low-Income Children? Developmental Psychology Vol. 42, No. 3

[9] L Burton; Low income and digital exclusion; https://www.poverty.ac.uk/editorial/low-income-and-digital-exclusion

This article was awarded second place in an essay competition answering the question: “Technology is a useful tool for furthering access to justice. Discuss”. 

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