Justice Innovation Lessons of 2017

What did 2017 bring? Lots of hard work, but was the dial on justice innovation moved?

Let me briefly beat my drum again why I we must ask this question every year; ministers of justice, chief justices, MPs, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, justice NGOs, tax payers, voters, and revolutionaries.

The past few months, the organisation I run, HiiL, put all the data that it has collected on justice needs and experiences the past four years together. Almost 70.000 voices. Twelve countries. Africa, the Arab world, and Europe. A new Trend Report based on this data will come out in the first quarter of 2018. Here’s a sneak preview. Our data shows that 60% of the justice needs people have involves five problems: family disputes, neighbour disputes, employment disputes, crime, and land disputes. Shockingly, we found that a little over 70% of the people who experience such problems do not find a satisfactory resolution. Almost 30% don’t even feel empowered enough to take action. So justice systems appear not be delivering. There is a shocking amount of unresolved unfairness. What would we say if a health system did not cure 70% of health problems? Or if a school system largely missed 70% of the children? Would we accept that? So we must ask this question at the end of every year.

My conclusion over 2017 is that it’s still not moving very fast. That should worry all of us. But there is movement.

In my closing column of 2016 I highlighted a few positive developments around data collection, a prerequisite for innovation. You need to know the justice needs and experiences of people and you need to know whether and to what extent what is offered works. The most significant development then was the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals, including a Goal related to justice: SDG 16. I would now say that thus far the concrete effect of proclaiming SDG16 has been minimal. The Institute for Economics and Peace did a thorough study this year and concludes that “at this stage, globally comparable data is either not available or only gathered for a limited number of countries…” Without such data, it is not possible to move forward on the targets. You can’t even see that you’re not making progress. What is positive: the World Justice Project continued unrelentingly with its data collection with another edition of the Rule of Law Index. HiiL completed five data reports: the UAE, Kenya, Tunisia, Jordan, and Lebanon. Also promising: the Pathfinders initiative, convened by Brazil, Sierra Leone and Switzerland and facilitated by the Center for International Cooperation of NYU, which highlights data as one of the key enablers for the realization of SDG16. This puts it in focus at the international political level. At a Justice Dialogue convened by the Justice Leadership Group and HiiL in the Peace Palace on 7 December the need for more collaboration between the public and private sector in collecting and sharing data about the justice needs and experiences of users was emphasized. We must push that lot more SDG16 funding is reserved for such data collection. May the development agencies of Canada, the Nordic countries, Germany, The Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK, Japan, and others step up to the plate.

In our 2012 Trend Report on Basic Justice Care for Everyone we highlighted five innovation directions as most needed and most promising. These were the ones that our research and the experts we consulted though had the potential to deliver the most justice where that was most needed:

  • Legal and practical information, just in time, offered online or via hybrid online-offline services
  • Programmes of lawyers, paralegals or facilitators integrating advocacy and mediation skills
  • Evidence-based guidelines for resolving the most difficult issues through proven formulas
  • Specialized processes at courts and informal tribunals that concentrate on problem-solving, aggregating experience around highly specific issue areas and topics
  • Online platforms supporting dispute resolution

2017 did not bring massive movement in these areas. It is good to see that companies like Legal Zoom and Rocket Lawyer are expanding. That’s a lot of affordable access to justice for a lot of people who did not have it. But the rules that limit the provision of legal services to lawyers are still strong. We don’t see a these types of platforms being set up elsewhere. Around bullets 2, 3, and 4 my impression is: many interesting pilots – little or no scale up. The nut of online dispute settlement has not been cracked at scale. A start-up to watch in this regard is Justice42, which rebooted Rechtwijzer. It is now offering a separation/divorce procedure. The monopoly of courts remains strong. Innovation stimulation through prizes continues: Namati (the Grassroots Justice Prize – global) HiiL (Innovating Justice Awards – global) and the Financial Times (only Europe and the US) continue to run their respective innovation awards. We also see more legal hackathlons: Kyiv, Zurich, London, Berlin – to name a few. Helsinki hosted a Legal Design Summit. We also see universities getting serious about legal innovation courses, for instance Gillian Hadfield and Dan Ryan at USC. All this will produce innovation with more growth potential. Scale and initiatives that contribute to the real access to justice gap connected with the five global core justice needs remains the real challenge.

Legal Zoom and HiiL announced the setting up of SDG16 Legal Tech Alliance (no website yet): a way of helping promising justice entrepreneurs get access to technology that the Legal Zoom giants have developed, so they don’t need to start from scratch. These companies will contribute what they have learned to justice entrepreneurs in less developed countries. It is hoped more legal tech companies will join.

In December I was present at a closed high-level session in the Peace Palace involving chief justices, (assistant) ministers and justice innovation leaders. The question under discussion as: why is innovation not happening when there are so many potential customers? What are the barriers? A report with the conclusions is being written as I write, but I can, again offer a sneak preview. The big barriers to innovation seem to be (in no particular order): lack of data about the needs and experiences of users of justice systems; the natural monopoly of judges and lawyers; the challenge of developing the smart public-private partnerships that innovation needs; limited or no access to finance. Note: no one said that there were no promising innovations! Evidence bares out that that is not the problem.

We have much work to do in 2018. And lets ask the question again in December. I hope the answer is better and bigger than this year.


  1. LegalZoom is dangerous. It and the other commercial producers of legal services (such as LegalX and RocketLawyer) are targeting the market of the general practitioner. General practitioners are more than 60% of law society membership. In the US they have made substantial inroads into that market. In 2011, LegalZoom conducted 20% of the incorporations in California, which has a population slightly bigger than that of Canada. These are big, well managed, and very well financed organizations. And they have started the same process here in Canada. Law societies don’t pay attention to their progress until it is too late—until the commercial producers have a large clientele, and therefore a lot of support from the population and the local government. They provide affordable legal services; law societies don’t.
    US law societies’ threats and prosecutions for UPL (the unauthorized practice of law) have not restrained their growth. They use lawyers in a very limited way, purposely to thwart such prosecutions. Law societies don’t have the necessary sophistication to cope with these organizations. And when a commercial producer has a large market of happy, satisfied customers, UPL prosecutions have the appearance of trying to eliminate a market competitor rather than protecting the public.
    But consider, a commercial producer of legal services provides only a buyer-seller relationship. But a retained lawyer provides a solicitor-client relationship with all of its benefits of, the fiduciary duty, law society discipline and financial oversight, professional insurance protection, and continuing professional development requirements. Therefore, if legal services were affordable, law societies could very effectively defend the general practitioner against the commercial producers by emphasizing that difference to the public. But they are not affordable and becoming more unaffordable as that majority of the population that cannot afford a lawyer’s advice grows.
    And, no law society in Canada is trying to solve the problem. They are merely helping the population learn to live with the problem. That is what has created the market for the commercial producers.
    For a more detailed explanation read these 2 articles:
    (1) “Alternative Business Structures’ ‘Charity Step’ to Ending the General Practitioner” (SSRN, October 5, 2017, pdf.)
    at: ;
    (2) “Access to Justice—Unaffordable Legal Services’ Concepts and Solutions” (SSRN, August 29, 2017, pdf)
    at: .
    But the above post by Sam Muller, makes an important point as to how incapable law societies are in coping with a changing world. We, the membership of Canada’s law societies, are one of their main victims.

Leave a Reply

(Your email address will not be published or distributed)