Apps and A2J: Mapping the Opportunities and Risks

In a 2015 speech, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin implored the legal profession to “accept the idea of change”, including the reality that some tasks that have been traditionally carried out by lawyers can now be more effectively performed through technological means.

It is questionable how much the Canadian legal profession, as a general matter, has taken up the Chief Justice’s call. Developments in one promising area—mobile phone and web-based apps that aim to enhance access to justice (“A2J”)—are largely being driven by individual innovators seeing unmet legal needs and thinking outside the box for new ways to harness technology to meet these needs.

Take, for example, LegalSwipe and JusticeTrans – two mobile phone apps that target unmet legal needs by providing important legal information quickly and inexpensively. LegalSwipe, created by newly called lawyer Christien Levien, informs people of their rights during interactions with police and offers video-recording and emergency-message functions. JusticeTrans, founded by another recent law grad, Benjamin Vandorpe, offers legal information about transgender rights across Canada.

In addition to apps that provide legal information, we are seeing other creative ways that technology is being harnessed to deliver legal services more effectively. Another Canadian lawyer, Peter Carayiannis, is at the head of StandIn, “a location-based app that matches lawyers with other lawyers, agents and legal professionals for court appearances.” StandIn aims to offer a simple solution to a common problem faced by trial lawyers: what to do when you have two matters scheduled concurrently in different courtrooms or courthouses. The app connects the remote or otherwise unavailable lawyer to another lawyer who is close to the relevant courthouse. As succinctly explained in a Globe and Mail article, “it’s like a version of the taxi app Uber, but for criminal lawyers.”

It’s clear that there are some exciting things happening in Canada relating to apps and A2J. And, to some extent, the powers that be are starting to take notice. It was recently announced, for example, that the Ministry of the Attorney General and the Legal Innovation Zone at Ryerson University will partner to launch the Ontario Access to Justice Challenge (A2J) which will “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 Canadian Bar Association also recently announced that, with support from LexisNexis, it will be partnering with LegalX to hold a competition – titled “The Pitch” – which will bring “Canada’s top five early-stage legal technology startups together on stage to compete for a coveted two-week residency with LegalX at MaRS Discovery District in Toronto and the attention of investors.” Although neither the Ontario Access to Justice Challenge or The Pitch is limited to apps, they do reflect the growing recognition that technology holds considerable potential to transform the delivery of legal services in Canada.

There is, however, tremendous opportunity to do more in this area. In the United States, there is a recognized “Hackcess to Justice” movement bringing together lawyers and programmers to collaborate in developing apps to expand A2J. The White House and the American Bar Association have each sponsored multiple competitions to encourage private individuals to develop A2J-enhancing apps. Recently developed apps for use in the American context include: Heat Seek (provides tenants with an easy way to record and report the temperature in their homes to ensure that landlords comply with heating code requirements; this app also tracks patterns of abuse with the goal of facilitating systemic responses); PaperHealth (designed for people who have no advance plans for medical emergencies to allow them to quickly create and share health care proxies and living wills); and Shake (allows individuals to quickly create, sign and send legal agreements using their phone).

American law schools are also leading the way in this area. For example, Georgetown Law hosts an Iron Tech Lawyer competition each year where “student teams show off apps built in [its] Technology Innovation and Law Practice practicum.” The group of students who won “Best Iron Tech Lawyer 2016” developed an app called iHeal to “help low-income immigrant and mixed citizenship status families determine health care coverage eligibility.” Stanford Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession and Stanford University’s Institute of Design ( together host the Legal Design Lab “to bring designers, lawyers & technologists together to advance legal innovation and access to justice.” Michigan State University College of Law houses LegalRnD which describes itself as “dedicated to improving legal-service delivery and access across the legal industry…through research and development of efficient, high-quality legal-service delivery tools and systems.”

There are also some exciting things happening in Canadian law school classrooms. The idea for one of the apps mentioned above – JusticeTrans – was developed in the context of a Legal Information Technology (Legal IT) course at Osgoode Law School, currently taught by Nicole Aylwin, Monica Goyal, and Darin Thompson. Additionally, a recent CBC news story reported that a group of Thompson Rivers University law students have designed an app called SUMMONS that “allows court administrators to provide live updates of court schedules and when litigants or their lawyers are to appear to help cut down on these expenses.” The idea for this app also sprang from a law school course, called Lawyering in the 21st Century, taught by Professor Katie Sykes.

However, in order to optimally leverage A2J-enhancing apps, a comprehensive analysis of this technology’s potential is needed. We also need a better understanding of the potential risks posed by using new technology in the legal field. The mobile and web environments give rise to distinct privacy and security issues, and, although the availability of wireless and internet access is at an all-time high, concerns about uneven or unequal access persist. In cases where apps deliver legal services, serious regulatory issues arise given that Canadian law currently confines the delivery of legal services to lawyers (and, in some provinces, paralegals). Under the current regulations, innovative tech-based service delivery models can amount to the unauthorized practice of law. There is also a need for more clarification and creative thinking about the roles of different stakeholders: is this a funding issue requiring greater public sector intervention, an education and training issue requiring greater collaboration between lawyers, law schools and other disciplines, or solely a regulatory issue?

Along with my University of Ottawa colleagues, Jena McGill, Suzanne Bouclin and Karin Galldin and an excellent group of research assistants, I’m part of a research team that is hoping to take a first crack at this sort of analysis through our SSHRC-funded project, Emerging Technological Solutions to Access to Justice: Opportunities and Risks of Mobile and Web-Based Apps. We are grateful for the funding that will facilitate this research and excited to be formally partnered with collaborators, including notable tech guru Colin Lachance and public legal education expert Lisa Cirillo, who will assist us in our project.

Stay tuned for more in coming months! In the meantime, we welcome any thoughts (either in the comments below or via email) that readers might have about the emerging field of A2J-enhancing apps.


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