RTR offers much more than just generic information — it offers a diagnosis of the user’s case and information specifically tailored for that user, and it offers that for free.
Road Traffic Representation (RTR) is an online legal advice service for road traffic offenses. The website offers an online assessment of a case free of charge that can be supplemented by optional paid for one-to-one telephone advice and representation in court.
Back in the late 1990s I was a practicing solicitor leading a personal injury department. I was a “technological virgin,” but I nevertheless started to get interested in how technology could improve our work. No win no fee agreements together with certain regulatory changes had resulted in a huge increase in volume, and it was foolish for us to think we could continue to do it in a handcrafted way. We purchased a case management system, but just as we were beginning to use it, the rules changed again making the system obsolete unless I learned how to customize it. I took four months out and did just that.
That experience taught me what the possibilities were, not just for our department but also for others. My partners did not share that vision, however, so I left partnership in order to join another firm as a case management consultant. After four years, I decided to go freelance, with my company Legal Workflow Limited.
I created RTR to stand in its own right, but also as a proving ground. I saw road traffic offenses as a sufficiently self-contained subject — good for the development of a prototype showing how to bring automation directly to clients. In order to develop it, I teamed up with a specialist in legal technology, who brought some of the deep coding skills that I didn’t have. The development took a long time — about two years — because I was funding the work myself, and I was working on it on weekends and some evenings when I could take time out from my day job. We finally launched in October, 2011 — close to the date when the alternative business structures first became capable of being licensed under the Legal Services Act, which I found quite symbolic — and which is why I set up RTR under the practice name ‘The LSA Partnership’.
My thinking behind RTR is that clients should not have to pay for process, or, at least, that they should not have to pay standard hourly rates for process. And much of the work lawyers do is process.
I won’t say that I haven’t asked myself questions along the journey — things haven’t changed as much as I thought they would, or at least not as fast as I thought they would. That being said, I think that there is a huge potential in the automation that is behind RTR, and as soon as someone with greater resources than I have (notably the budget to further develop the technology and to market the service) takes the idea and runs with it, then I think the rest of the market will follow.
The difference between RTR and other sites is that RTR offers much more than just generic information — it offers a diagnosis of the user’s case and information specifically tailored for that user, and it offers that for free.
This is how RTR works: someone who has been accused of a motoring offense is asked a series of questions about the offense, the process that the authorities have followed to date, the client’s prior driving record, and the client’s financial circumstances. With that information, the site assesses whether the authorities have followed the proper procedure (and thus whether any procedural or technical objections can be raised) and makes a diagnosis of the likely penalties the client will face if convicted, with a starting point and a range for the likely fines. The site then invites the user to answer questions about offense itself. These questions replicate the questions that a lawyer is likely to ask. Each question is determined based upon the responses to the previous questions — so there is a decision tree mechanism (conditional logic) being used in the background. In that way, the client is only asked questions that are relevant. With the responses to these questions, the system is able to diagnose where there are potential areas of defense.
(At the moment, the system does not understand free text. It can understand responses like yes, no, don’t know and can’t remember, but beyond that it cannot read free text. This is a part of the system that we are planning to further develop, so that it can read free text through use of algorithims).
That is the extent of the free service. At this stage, if the client wants it, he/she can obtain advice over the telephone for a fixed fee of £35 including VAT, with no time limit on the conversation. After the call, the details of the advice are entered into the system, and an email and text is sent automatically to the client to supply a record of the call and a receipt for the money paid online.
If the client wants to be represented in court, either to defend the charge or to enter a plea of mitigation on a guilty plea, he/she can then pay a fixed fee for that representation — there is a menu of mixed fees that depend upon the type and the place of the hearing. As soon as the client indicates they would like this, a number of things happen: the client receives an acknowledgement with a description of what’s going to happen and when, the system sends an automated email to a barristers’ chambers in London that acts either as the primary source of the advocacy, or, if it’s in another area, then they procure a suitable barrister. The barrister is chosen from a pool of barristers that specialize in this area of law. Our system provides them with its own administrative system and calendar for that purpose. As soon as a barrister is allocated, the system sends another automatic email to the client, to provide them with a link to information about the barrister and his/her photo, and to let them know about what will happen next. The system also sends an automatic email to the allocated barrister, with a link to the brief.
The brief is compiled entirely automatically, with no human intervention at all. It has gathered all of the information and documentation that the client provided to the site as well as the record of the telephone call with the solicitor. After the barrister has gone to court with the client and concluded the case, the barrister logs the outcome into the system, which again generates an automatic communication to the client to confirm what has happened and supply a receipt for amounts paid.
The entire process happens, or can happen, without human intervention until the moment when the barrister stands up in court on behalf of the client. In my opinion, soon even that part of the process will go online, especially for less complex cases like traffic offenses, so part of our challenge today is to extend our system to encompass online advocacy as well.
For a great many people, the free advice is all they want or need. It provides them with reassurance as to where they stand and what might happen to them. It is just a percentage of those users that go on to pay either for telephone advice and/or for advocacy. Interestingly, as regards our paying services, we have had more paid events in the past six months than we had in the entire three years before. Something is happening, for sure.
We offer so much for free for three reasons: (i) it is the nature of the internet — it is inevitable that this type of advice will become free, (ii) we believe that much of the free advice we provide most people would not be willing to pay for, anyway (not without human interaction), and (iii) it increases traffic to the website. People will pay for what they value — they won’t pay for reading material online, but as soon as they need human intervention, either as advice or legal representation in court — that they value and are willing to pay for.
At the time we developed the system, we were careful to test it with barristers, not only as regards content but also usability from their perspective. The barristers who have worked with our system react positively to it. They say, for example, that it is great to have everything presented to them in such a complete yet organized and focused manner (one document of about 6 pages). They don’t need to wade through files to glean for themselves the pertinent information — this permits them to focus quickly on the real issues.
The technology behind RTR can be adapted to support a variety of other types of legal services. More specifically, it can be used to create an online questionnaire with conditional logic behind it to capture data online from clients, in order to use it in a case or practice management system. With this insight, we created NextLegal, which offers the development of this kind of technology for law firms.
In addition to my work with NextLegal, I also provide technology services for the ABS Legalmatters Limited. This company specializes in private client services: wills and estates, tax planning, trusts, powers of attorney, … The company works mainly through intermediaries. The company takes instructions automatically — using the technology that is behind RTR to, for example, take instructions for a will or a power of attorney. These instructions come in through the intermediaries at a high volume, and Legalmatters Limited needs to be able to handle them at a high volume, also. Given the high cost of operating RTR as a solicitors’ practice, my association with Legalmatters gave me an opportunity to assign ownership of the RTR product to Legalmatters so that it could benefit from their ABS status and, in time, external investment that could not otherwise be achieved.
There are a number of areas that I think could benefit greatly from RTR’s technology. They include: wills, trusts and probate, small claims civil litigation, employment law and personal injury cases, conveyancing, debt recovery, landlord/tenant — any kind of case where representation in a traditional manner is not cost effective.
The area that I am most focused on at the moment is family law. The recent and drastic cuts in legal aid make this area very ripe for a service like RTR. Because of the cuts it practically impossible to get legal aid for matters like divorce, but, at the same time, private legal services are very expensive. The result is a lot of unmet need. The government itself should be looking to fund services of this kind, as is done in the Netherlands, for example. But that is not happening. The system right now is a mess, with the courts overflowing with unrepresented litigants — a service like RTR’s could greatly alleviate that.
I envision it would work differently from RTR, though, in that the human interaction would come at the beginning rather than at the end. More specifically, the client would have a conversation with a real person at the very beginning (that conversation could occur in person or over the phone or in a video conference). It would be a chat about what has happened and what can be done to move forward. The discussion can cover in a general manner questions like finances, assets, child custody, etc. This conversation can reassure the client that someone is interested in what is happening, and a relationship of trust can be built.
Up until this point, the process resembles a traditional one. However, it is usually after a conversation like this that things get scary for the client. The client has to make a decision about whether or not to move forward. If so, then the client is asked to commit to paying a usually high hourly fee (such as £200 per hour) without any real confidence in just how much it will all end up costing.
The service I envision would place more control in the hands of the client. The client would be introduced to a software system that would be along the lines of RTR. The system would guide the client to input pertinent information, such as the information needed to prepare a divorce petition, or the information needed to prepare an application regarding the children (names, ages, schools, specials needs, etc.). The system would be more complex than RTRs in that it would not cover a single process, but multiple ones. As the client proceeds through the system, the program will automatically provide suggestions and guidance to the client based upon the information that the client inputs. At any point in the process, the client can indicate that they would like to speak with someone, either for guidance or because something specific has happened. The client is in control, and can decide how much they will do for themselves (usually for cost reasons) and how much they would like help with, subject to a menu of fixed prices. In this manner, it is not all or nothing. It is not a stark choice between either “I have someone represent me” or “I do it myself.” In sum, the system uses the software of RTR, but turns it on its head to provide a very different kind of support.
This kind of system can be developed for other law firms to use, on a white label basis, for example.
Further, the state has a huge interest in developing this kind of service. So many people go to court unrepresented and without understanding what is expected of them. A lot of court time and cost is wasted. The courts have a real interest in having before them, represented or not, people who are fully informed and advised and understanding what is happening. A system like RTR’s offers the way for that to happen. In that manner, rather than being developed by private industry, as I am doing now, a system like RTR’s could also be developed or sponsored by the state.
More generally speaking, the ABS structure offers a huge potential for increasing access to justice. But if you look at the UK, this isn’t happening like it should. I think this is because there are too many vested interests in preserving the status quo, and notably in preserving the ability to charge £200 and £300 per hour for handcrafted services. I do think that at some point things will happen to really shake up the legal services market that will lead to big shift to technology, and then finally everyone else will be obliged to follow suit. For the moment, it’s a process of evolution that is happening slowly.
The Legal Services Act has opened opportunities for legal services. It enables innovation, it facilitates new delivery models that simply were not possible before, just because there was no opportunity for investment. Certainly new delivery models can be developed without investment, but investment allows for it to be done on a much larger and more effective scale.
What this is all about though, or at least it should be all about, is that many people do not have access to justice, in large part because they do not have access to the legal services they need. The debate over legal aid in the UK has been an all or nothing basis — either legal aid will get money, or it won’t, and so people either will have access to justice or they won’t. There is a big gap in this approach. There are other ways to approach the problem, and RTR shows what one approach can be. What we need is a wider debate amongst not just lawyers but amongst the public on how legal services can be provided differently, so that it is not all or nothing.
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