Suddenly, we're all lawtech experts. At conferences and other events these days I'm forever bumping in to old friends from past decades who have hopped on to the legal technology bandwagon. (No doubt they say the same about me.) While the scene isn't quite as manic as the 1990s dotcom boom or the 2005 'e-government' craze - hell, we're that much older now - there's a palpable sense that legal tech is the place to be.

It's not entirely hype. There are sound reasons to believe that recent breakthroughs in machine learning and natural language processing, generally lumped together as 'artificial intelligence', are ripe for application to legal practice. 

Where there's the promise of technological transformation, you'll find money. While I suspect few lawtech startups are yet making much from sales - too many are still at the piloting stage, or working with old chums who don't expect to have to pay to help develop software - but plenty of venture capital is going into seed, angel or series A funding. 'You can smell the testosterone,' as one long-time commentator, Professor Roger Smith, put it last month.

Smith was contrasting the investment in City lawtech with that going in to technology to make justice accessible to the poorer in society. But even that is getting some dosh. In its legal support 'action plan' earlier this year the Ministry of Justice promised £8m for 'innovative' forms of legal support and ideas to help litigants in person. 

We also have the government's wider industrial strategy, which claims to be investing £1bn to boost the UK's position in artificial intelligence. At least some of this money has found its way into the legal sector through the £10m 'regulators pioneer fund'. The Solicitors Regulation Authority adeptly climbed on that particular bandwagon, securing £700,000 'to support business innovations that will use artificial intelligence to transform the legal services market for small businesses and consumers'. 

The vehicle to make this happen is a prize fund announced in June as 'the £250,000 Legal Access Challenge'. It will award 'up to' four development grants of £50,000 for promising ideas to enable access to justice through technology, with a further £50,000 to the overall winner. Applications closed last Sunday and the first winners are due to be announced in the autumn. It all sounds very worthy: lawyers, academics and entrepreneurs are fizzing with ideas for applying technology to justice but these won't become products without serious investment. The question is whether Whitehall cash channelled through a legal regulator is the way to provide this investment. 

We have already covered two problems with the scheme. One is the way that a large part - £450,000, or 64% - of the Whitehall funding seems to be sticking to the challenge's organisers rather than going to the winners. Putting it this way is slightly unfair, because an important part of the project is to maintain an 'enduring collaborative platform' and to avoid endless reinventions of the wheel. But it is still not a great look. 

Neither is another condition apparently forced on the challenge by its Whitehall funders, requiring recipients of the awards to surrender elements of intellectual property

Gazette readers have been quick to spot the symptoms of empire-building. This is par for the course with a regulator which has always taken a broad view of its role as set out in the Legal Services Act 2007. 

I have two more basic quibbles. One is whether a 'challenge' is the right paradigm for encouraging this kind of innovation. This seems to have come from Nesta, a quango originally set up to dispense National Lottery money but which now sees itself as heir to the great tradition set by the 1714 prize for the discoverer of a practical means of determining longitude at sea. But, with all due respect to clockmaker John Harrison, determining longitude was a single mathematical problem posed by the earth's rotation. Access to justice is a rather fuzzier concept, with little consensus on what success looks like. 

High profile prizes can also take innovation up blind alleys. The 1959 Kremer prizes for human-powered flight were supposed to encourage breakthroughs in aviation which would have us all commuting by cyclecopter, or whatever. In the event they were won by machines that the Wright Brothers would have understood, and no doubt would have built had they had access to 1970s-era plastics and alloys. Government has an even worse track record of picking desirable outcomes for innovation: the current focus on AI, for example, comes over suspiciously like a tool looking for a job. 

Which leads me to my second quibble: whether a legal regulator should be taking money from government in the first place. The regulatory regime in England and Wales is already tainted internationally over the lord chancellor's statutory role in the Legal Services Board; it is not the SRA's job to be a footsoldier for the government's industrial policy.


New frontiers in data protection, e-Privacy and workplace surveillance – Thursday 26 September 2019

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