Last month, Ryerson University’s Legal Innovation Zone (LIZ) and Ontario’s Ministry of the Attorney General hosted The Final Pitch of the Ontario Access to Justice Challenge. The Challenge sought to “foster the growth and success of startups that are developing products, technologies, processes, and solutions that have a direct positive impact on access to justice in Ontario.” The Challenge began last summer with 29 startups that were ultimately narrowed down to a top five that received a range of incubation supports from LIZ including advisors, workshops and mentorship opportunities.
I had the honour of being one of four judges at The Final Pitch where the top five companies had 15 minutes to explain how their innovation would improve access to justice and why it was worthy of a portion of $50,000 in seed money. Listening to the pitches was a refreshing experience – the presenters were able to convey a discrete problem and a carefully thought out solution in an engaging narrative supported by uncluttered visuals.
The three companies that successfully won seed money did so because of their commitment to improving outcomes for people with everyday problems. These companies prioritized serving a human need first with the legal one coming second. It is worth noting that while the founders of these companies were lawyers, their teams were comprised of diverse professionals – engineers, developers and other technologists that are critical to the development of sound solutions.
The start-up world and the legal world are associated with opposite stereotypes – unstructured versus structured, open versus closed, curt versus verbose. Hearing about access to justice solutions from the intersection of these professional cultures was inspiring and energizing. The presenters had each identified a distinct problem, developed a solution and operated with an inherent understanding that iteration was a key element of the problem solving process.
This is a method that brings a practical approach to the pursuit of perfection. However, the application of entrepreneurial approaches to advancing social good is a delicate balance. As the burgeoning world of social enterprise indicates, there are a lot of success stories attributed to the adaptation of business strategies to advance social well-being. Still, for many access to justice advocates there is skepticism that entrepreneurial technology-based improvements will further the exclusion of the most vulnerable – those on the wrong side of the digital divide. This was something that TAG explored last fall during Access to Justice Week – find more details here.
This month Ontario will see another technology initiative come to light – one without an entrepreneurial component – with the launch of Steps to Justice. Led by Community Legal Education Ontario, Steps to Justice provides clear language, reliable and practical information about common legal problems. This initiative is unique because it brings together justice sector institutions as partners in the creation of a large-scale online public legal education resource.
Representatives from the Ministry of the Attorney General, the Superior Court of Justice, the Ontario Court of Justice, the Social Justice Tribunals of Ontario, Legal Aid Ontario and other organizations have worked together on content to ensure legal accuracy and practical relevance. Beyond the tremendous collaborative effort, Steps to Justice content will be available for justice sector and community organizations to embed on their respective websites. This type of initiative is balancing impressive cross-sector collaboration with innovative technological developments to ensure maximum impact.
While the opportunities and risks must be considered, the development and application of new access to justice technologies makes for a welcome shake-up by diversifying problem solvers, perspectives and approaches. Access to justice, when viewed through a technology lens is a world of untapped potential and possibilities. It’s a world I look forward to seeing grow in 2017.
Manager, The Action Group on Access to Justice