A Digital Swansong

Marlene Winfield OBE has spent her career giving a voice to users of public services, including for the last six years as a member of the Legal Services Consumer Panel, where she has made a huge contribution through her expertise in consumer engagement, understanding of what has worked (or not worked) in other sectors – and through her scrupulous editing!  Today is her last day on the Panel, and her final written contribution below is particularly appropriate to the circumstances we find ourselves in.

After six years on the Legal Services Consumer Panel, I want to make my swansong a digital ditty.

Once Covid19 becomes a dim memory (sooner rather than later, I hope), I wonder what those in the business of delivering justice will have learned?  While GPs are busy converting their consultations to video conferences, are lawyers doing the same?  A silver lining of this crisis might be that the default position of delivering every service to every client face-to-face, unsustainable as it was becoming long before the virus, will be challenged once and for all.

Many legal services providers, especially those dealing with individual consumers and small businesses, have been slow to explore how technology can ease the journey to resolving a legal problem: realising the problem is legal; identifying the help needed; choosing and accessing affordable help; progressing the matter effectively; reaching resolution; dealing with the aftermath; and addressing any complaints.  At every stage, technology can help – and is already helping in places.  But there is not yet a coherent strategy for using technology to make civil (and increasingly criminal) justice sustainable by better fitting the options to the client.

The Legal Choices website appears to be a step in the right direction, but so far the vision for it is modest, where it could be transformative for many (but of course not all). Many in the digital generations – some now reaching middle age – use technology to manage most of life.  They can hardly be impressed by the lack of whizzy apps, decision software, and remote conferencing to help them tackle their legal problems conveniently. Nor are the increasing numbers of us digitally savvy older people impressed.  That said, developments like online aids for will-writing, conveyancing, divorce and complaints resolution are moving in the right direction.

So what might the future hold for the digitally enabled?  Most potential consumers could be able to start solving a legal problem by considering a range of options, aided by decision-making software and switched-on legal services providers.  They will be helped to determine what they can afford to pay others to do and how much they are capable of doing themselves. After all, they do that in many other aspects of their lives.  Here, by the way, is where I see a major role for legal executives, rather like the change agents in other sectors.

While, until these extraordinary times, remote hearings have been spoken about more often than tried, in the future they may be the default option for many people in many matters. But first the technology needs to be as reliable as it has become in other sectors, and that requires commitment by Government. Importantly, though, provision must be made for those who, for many different reasons, are not able to deal easily with digital communication methods.

And finally, in my six years on the Panel, I have waited to see the technology light bulb come on among regulators.  By that, I mean the realisation that the new ways of unbundling and digitising legal services will not be amenable to old ways of regulating.  But alas, while there is a growing glimmer, the bulb has a very effective dimmer switch still.

It will, of course, take time to recover and rebuild after such a traumatic time.  And so, from a safe social distance, I look forward to the day, post-recovery, when the Panel, consumers, service providers and regulators will be able to count the ways that legal services and the justice system were made better by this dreadful experience.  We will have paid a high price, let’s not squander the learning.

It has been a wonderfully educational six years for me and I wish you all well.