The LawTech Delivery Panel (an industry-led and government backed group to promote legal technology) defines LawTech as: “broadly, technologies which aim to support, supplement or replace traditional methods for delivering legal services, or transactions; or which improve the operation of the justice system”.
As technology changes the way we relate to each other and live our lives, so
too will it change the issues and evidence that Family practitioners grapple
with. This article looks at three examples of the practical application that new technology may have in a Family Law context.
Instant Messaging and Images
Ever since mobile phones and social media apps have allowed everyone to carry thousands of personal photographs and logs of our most private conversations, the justice system has had to find ways to deal with this in evidence. From the companies specialising in digital forensics, who will analyse device contents from text messages to internet searches and produce them as an expert report, to attempts by the Courts to restrict the amount of this evidence that is proportionate or appropriate to exhibit.
As technology advances, more sophisticated programs can scan and review
documents, images, and messages. Prompts can narrow and refine search results for what may be thousands of messages to find those most key to the issues in quicker time. Improvement of this technology will lead to lower costs. Success of programs like ChatGPT could mean lawyers can pay a more moderate subscription fee rather than having to pay for expert services on a one-off basis for each case.
Conversely, new technology threatens to cast doubt on the veracity of client
generated screenshots and images. Websites are available whereby users can input messages to generate their own fake ‘screenshot’ of messages or social media posts. Users can even change details such as the wifi signal and battery level on the phone. Similarly, AI ‘art’ and image manipulation can create photos and videos, almost indistinguishable from real ones, where a person’s image can be used to make them appear to be doing or saying anything. A party adept in image manipulation such as photoshop may have previously been able to achieve similar if they had the time, but new AI offers this ability to more on a less time-consuming scale.
To prevent the need for digital forensics and even higher costs, more clients will need to ensure from the outset that their messages and images are verifiable in order to be relied on. This could come via an authentication process, or by using verified services to communicate in the first place. Many Private Children Act practitioners will be familiar with the popular ‘parenting apps’ available, of whom a selling point is that messages made via the app are secure and can be verified. For images, despite efforts to create AI programs capable of detecting whether an image has been AI generated, this is likely to be an area of future uncertainty and it may require a digital ‘watermark’ for original images that can be verified as genuine once taken.
In financial remedies matters, one of the most time consuming and difficult parts of the process for both clients and practitioners can be collating their documents and information together for the Form E and disclosure.
Since 2018, the UK has enabled Open Banking. This means that banks must allow customers to be able to share their data with authorised providers, granting instant and read only access as authorised by the customer. This is being utilised across a range of financial sector services from making decisions on mortgages, tenancies or loans, to offering financial management advice. The technology allows an authorised provider to be given instant access to a snapshot of an individual’s financial profile, including 12 months of transactions for multiple bank accounts, earnings and outgoings information, and current liabilities, which it then utilises to advise what the individuals borrowing capacity or abilities to meet a new long-term payment commitment would be.
For many straightforward financial remedy matters, initial disclosure could now be as simple as the client clicking a link and authorising their solicitors’ access via Open Banking, to take the information itself and complete a report akin to the information collated in the Form E. This process could be quickly repeated in advance of each future hearing.
NLP and Jargon Busting
NLP in a Lawtech context stands for ‘Natural Language Processing’, a form of AI. It is essentially what has enabled computers to be able to understand human language, despite it containing natural errors, slang, omissions, or imperfections. NLP applications are commonly used in everyday programs, such as Microsoft Word making suggestions about grammatical corrections.
NLP is widely hailed as a way to widen access to justice and enable litigants in person to stand on a more equal footing. For example programs like ‘Virtual Lawyer’ assist with writing ‘without prejudice’ letters to negotiate a fair settlement agreement after being treated badly at work. This could make a real difference where there is a large power imbalance, like the employer/employee relationship, but may not be a silver bullet in situations where partners or family are in dispute over money or children. For example, drafting advice will not assist in settling a case where a litigant
in person is taking an unreasonable or misguided stance over asset sharing in the hope the other party becomes worn down or runs out of money.
One area where it could greatly assist is with jargon busting. Many Family lawyers will be acutely aware, jargon and acronyms are both numerous and persistent in Family cases. Care proceedings in particular use a whole host of agencies, meetings, people and processes that have not only their own names but are often city/region specific too. For parents and family members who may be vulnerable, this jargon can be impenetrable.
NLP has the capability to process complex texts and make them more accessible. In future, lay clients who are struggling could have relevant documents – such as social work records, Cafcass reports, or guardian analyses – processed by an NLP program and the text simplified with acronyms or legal terms replaced. Easy read formats of documents could be produced with greater ease to assist clients with learning difficulties. The same could be done for court orders, plans and working agreements to ensure lay clients have a written form of their obligations in an easier to understand form.
As just these brief examples show, Lawtech is not something that Family
lawyers need to approach with trepidation, nor a sense that it doesn’t really
apply to their field as readily as others. Family proceedings can be some of the most difficult and traumatic proceedings that clients can find themselves
involved in. As practitioners, we have a duty to ensure the latest technology is being utilised appropriately to improve our client’s experience, remove difficult and unnecessary tasks, and reduce costs where possible.
Written by Elizabeth Adams, 3PB