Ask any entrepreneur: ideas are easy, execution is hard. This is especially true for legal tech startups faced with limited access to public legal data, a risk-averse profession that is notoriously slow to adopt new technologies, and an entrenched industry model for legal services. So when I made the jump from lawyer to legal tech entrepreneur, little did I know that I was also becoming a staunch advocate for access to justice.
What follows is partly the story of why Knomos was created, some of the biggest challenges we’ve faced, and the opportunities that lie ahead. It’s also a reminder to the broader legal community that real access to justice begins with real access to legal information.
In Canada, we’re fortunate to live in a free and democratic society with governments and NGOs that strive to provide citizens with access to public legal information, including federal and provincial laws and cases. But simple access is not the same as true accessibility. Sure, Canadian legal information is broadly available online. It still remains an impenetrable maze for most audiences, written in densely worded legalese spread across multiple sites.
For citizens who perform legal research, basic access to laws and case decisions only gets them so far. Searching Canadian laws organized alphabetically is a real challenge to citizens who don’t know the name of the statute they’re looking for. Case information that is “practically obscure” – because it is not made easily accessible – is a practical impediment to self-represented litigants trying to navigate the courts alone. Legacy research tools, often clunky and impractical, are intimidating for the layperson who struggles to leverage their full potential.
True access to justice involves legal education & citizen empowerment. Most citizens performing legal research are trying to achieve an actionable outcome, a direct and tangible end result. Whether it be finding redress for a wrong, dealing with a family matter or simply filing a form, they’re trying to get something done. By developing the tools necessary to allow individuals to better understand and exercise their rights, we will foster a more engaged citizenry.
At Knomos, we constantly ask ourselves how to make law more accessible and usable online by moving beyond words on a page. Relying on machine learning and data visualization technologies, we’re mapping a knowledge network of the law to help Canadians find and share legal information (think Google Maps for law). We aim to “shrink the search” by aggregating content across legal sources, coupled with a unique visual user-driven design that helps people discover key information on demand.
The platform will be an educational aid for students, an enterprise tool for lawyers, and a public legal resource for all Canadians. For example, building on our recent partnership with Microsoft Ventures, Knomos is developing deep machine learning algorithms using legal metadata to reveal previously hidden insights about how law is being enacted, enforced, and applied.
In 2014, the BC Queen’s Printer took a necessary next step and made all provincial laws & regulations freely accessible via the BC Laws API, under a permissive open licence. Working with the BC Queen’s Printer has been a model partnership and a huge catalyst in our company’s ongoing development. It enabled us to rapidly grow our legislative content scope and transition from a proof-of-concept to a fully functioning prototype.
I’m proud of how Knomos has built key strategic partnerships with progressive legal stakeholders including the BC Government, the Supreme Court of Canada, and the Canadian Legal Information Institute. These organizations have shown a true openness to explore opportunities for collaboration and a desire to innovate for the benefit of all.
But current global initiatives to truly “free the law” and improve access to justice recognize that “free” means more than just the absence of a paywall. Free, as in libre, means open access to use, copy, and redistribute public legal information through new and innovative tools that empower citizens to meaningfully act on their rights.
And as former CanLII president Colin Lachance has noted, the challenge now is to support the next-generation of legal tech innovators “by standardizing access terms”:
“If each new player has to run the gauntlet at each court in order to gain access to case law, Canadian legal information innovations will forever be limited to the outputs of the existing service providers. That’s not good enough.”
For a young startup, engaging key stakeholders and convincing them to improve open access to public legal information is no small task. I know this first-hand and have heard the same from many of my LegalX peers at MaRS. Public bodies simply operate at a very different scale and pace than we do. If each startup has to navigate securing authorization and access on their own, many will struggle to survive long enough to bring innovative legal technologies to the Canadian market.
It’s why all Canadian governments and courts need to adopt and implement open data policies that provide free and standardized access to structured public legal data.
No doubt, there are legitimate concerns about privacy and informational integrity. But these should inform the implementation of open access policies rather than bar access outright.
Ultimately, making open and free access the default policy across all government bodies isn’t just about benefitting legal startups. It also benefits the public sector and citizens. These new technologies will help policy makers, judges, and individual citizens all make more informed decisions. We must continue to work together to improve open access to public legal data and build a more just legal system for all.
Onwards & upwards,
This piece was originally published in the Canadian Bar Association’s National Magazine.