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Wednesday, 25 July 2012

The world's first automated brief to Counsel?

A milestone was reached last month, nine months since I launched Road Traffic Representation (RTR), an online legal service for people charged with motoring offences.

This service provides a free diagnosis of the likely penalties if convicted, whether there is a risk of disqualification for a 'totting up' disqualification for reaching 12 penalty points in three years, and whether there are any prospects of a defence.

The milestone was the first case running from initial enquiry to disposal at court, with the online process automating virtually the entire case.

The diagnoses offered by RTR are closely tailored to the circumstances of the site visitor, using artificial intelligence to give detailed advice about their case and according to their specific circumstances rather than just generic advice.  Advice on penalties is not simply an indication of maximum penalties, but instead applies Magistrates Courts Sentencing Guidelines to the circumstances of the visitor's case.

The diagnoses are free but if the visitor wants more help there are two paid services on offer, the main ones being expert telephone advice and representation in court by a barrister.  In this particular case, the visitor signed up to the online terms and conditions, paid online a small fixed fee for telephone advice (which is unlimited in time for that call) and received such advice at a time of his choosing.  Notes of the advice are logged on a secure part of the site to which the client has password-protected access and as soon as the notes are logged the client receives an email and text message advising him of that fact.

Here, the client decided that he wanted representation in court.  He answered a series of questions to determine any hearing that had already taken place (there was none) and the nature of the forthcoming hearing.  He was advised automatically of the cost of the imminent hearing given his intention to plead guilty and of any other hearings that might be necessary.  He then paid online, which immediately caused some further automated processes to kick in.

First, Old Bailey Chambers, which partners with RTR either to provide representation themselves or secure the services of a barrister from their network of Chambers, received an automated email advising them of the client's requirement, which then set in place their obligation to allocate a suitable barrister (from an approved list) within 1 working hour.  They have access to a Barristers admin site within RTR and simply select from the list the barrister, who is then allocated to the case.

This does three things.  First, it fires off an automated email and text message to the client advising him of the name of the barrister allocated, along with a link to the barrister's biography and photograph, and detailed guidance about what to do at court, what to bring, etc.  Secondly, the barrister receives an email advising him that there is a brief waiting for him in his virtual 'pigeon hole'.  This leads to the third act in this trilogy.

Upon receipt of the email the barrister selects a link, which causes a brief to be downloaded.  In this case, an 8-page brief in PDF format was produced, detailing all information provided by the client, all of the automated diagnoses, notes of the telephone advice, details of the pleas (there were three offences charged) and notes on mitigation (produced via the client's answers to guided questionnaires) and a statement of means containing automatic calculations.

I really can't say for sure, and I would be grateful if anyone can tell me I am wrong, but I believe this may be the world's first automated brief, or at least detailed brief, to Counsel.

What happened next?  Well, I received a phone call the day before the hearing to tell me that the barrister who was briefed was part heard and that the Judge would not release him.  This happens often in practice, which usually involves a scramble to find someone else, get the papers to him and inform, advise and reassure the client.  Here, Chambers returned to the RTR admin system and simply reallocated the new barrister.  This caused the booking in the system diary to change and a detailed and, I hope, reassuring email and text to be sent to the client advising him of the change, the reason for it, a link to the new barrister's profile and confirmation that she had all the papers and would be fully prepared for the hearing.

Although I knew from extensive testing that this part of the process worked, I had to be sure that there was no hiccup in real life, so I phoned the client, who confirmed receipt of the email and that he fully understood its content and the reasons for the change and felt reassured.

Immediately after the hearing, Counsel phoned me to advise me of a successful outcome and a happy client.  On her return to Chambers, Counsel logged on to the Barristers' section of the admin site and recorded the outcome with full notes, which again caused the client to receive an email and text referring to these details.  It also caused the automatic generation of a receipted invoice.

I was taken unawares by my own reaction to the completion of this process.  I knew from testing that the system worked, but here was a real case that served the client well from beginning to end.  The system took about two years from my initial concept and design to launch (mostly in long evening into night and weekend work while I wasn't doing the day job that helped pay for my development team).  Notwithstanding investment in PR and SEO services, I knew that it would be a very long job in bringing the service to the public consciousness, and remains so.  I expected it to take around a year before the first instructions for representation in court would be received, so it was nice to get a case after nine months.

What took me by surprise was the sheer elation and, I have to confess, a quite emotional reaction to this event.  There have been plenty of times when I doubted the sanity of embarking on this project and whether it would ever take off, and it still has a long way to go, but here was vindication that online legal services can work and do have a future.  I set out to provide a service by which a client would not pay for the pure process of applying the law to the facts of their case and that they would elect to pay only for such services that add real value to them, in this case the reassurance of one to one telephone advice and being represented in court by a skilled advocate.

The best outcome of this for me was the client's attitude to the service.  When I called him I had hoped for expressions of amazement that legal services could be delivered in this way and I was a little disappointed that he said nothing of the kind.  As I reflected on this, however, it dawned on me that his matter of fact assumption that the availability of such a service was the biggest boost he could give me.  The client was no youngster from whom such assumptions could be more expected, but a man in his late thirties who has probably experienced legal services at least once, if only on moving home, and who could be forgiven for thinking that traditional delivery methods were the only ones available.

This has given me greater confidence that the launch of RTR is not premature (as I had worried it might be) and that there is a place for true online legal services now.  I have ambitions to extend the concept to many other areas of law and this one small but highly significant step has encouraged me to think that these are not foolish aims.

I hope that this has not been too much of a ramble and that you will indulge me a few more short lines in thanking all those who have made it possible for me to recount this story.  They include my talented development team at Exen Legal Solutions, the supremely wise and supportive business consultant David Welling, a creative and generous PR consultant Deborah Lewis of The Hero Machine, Nicholas Bull, barrister at Old Bailey Chambers, who provided valuable input and led the testing at Old Bailey Chambers, Senior Clerk Gary Reed who supported the initiative from Day One and Claire Burtwistle, who at the eleventh hour took on the mantle of the world's first barrister to be instructed by automated brief (unless someone puts me right on that).  Last, but definitely not least, my family and friends who always encouraged me and provided willingly such helpful feedback on what was good and not so good about the design and functionality of the site.