By Sebastian Ko, Convener of the Access to Justice Innotech Law Hackathon and Law Society of Hong Kong Innotech Committee Member

 

On April 7-8, 2018, the Law Society of Hong Kong held its inaugural hackathon, the Access to Justice Innotech Law Hackathon (Hackathon). Hackathons are typically intense multi-day competitions, where teams participate to explore, design and create technology-enabled solutions to address problems relating to specific subject domains. Over 120 competitors joined the Hackathon, and over 60 mentors, guests and supporters also attended. In Asia, it was the first hackathon led and organized by a professional regulator, and the first “law and tech” hackathon to focus specifically on enhancing the public’s access to justice. This report covers the Hackathon’s efforts, as part of the Law Society’s initiative to enhance technology competency in the law, to promote legal innovation and the lessons learnt.  

Hong Kong’s Legal Aid Department (LAD) and Microsoft provided guidance and resources instrumental to the Hackathon. Other supporting organizations hailed from the legal, start-up, academic and technology communities. Competing teams, with four to six members each, developed web-based solutions to address scenarios under one of three themes: bridging the public and legal professionals; helping minorities facing barriers to justice; and facilitating access to LAD services. We encouraged cross-disciplinary innovation and collaboration among students, professionals and entrepreneurs with legal, software engineering and other backgrounds.

We provided competitors hands-on experience to learn about barriers to justice –where they are manifested, why they matter and how might they be overcome. A team from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, without any legal training, provided fresh perspectives –reimagining how the LAD website could leverage the latest digital design and web tools to deliver better online services to lay users. The team earned an Honourable Mention. “We should engage the public more to promote their awareness on access to justice in real-world contexts, on practical terms – not with abstract principles and high-sounding legalese. The Hackathon has certainly presented an innovative way to achieve this,” said Thomas Kwong, the Director of Legal Aid, “the Legal Aid Department is proud to have supported the event.” 

Our instructions and briefing materials encouraged cross-disciplinary innovation. Our training aimed to empower competitors with relevant legal and computer science knowledge and design-thinking methodology. We fostered creativity by setting out a structured ideation process while defining objectives and deliverables broadly. With the help of subject-matter specialist mentors, we held two workshops to prepare competitors. We asked competitors to examine critically their target users’ behaviour, needs and adoption barriers; to consider inclusively multi-stakeholder perspectives; and associated legal risks, such as legal privilege and client confidentiality. We also asked competitors to consider technology choice and fitness, and cost-benefit analyses of implementation and ongoing maintenance. Where target users are non-profits, for example, we prompted teams to consider operational models that assume the lack of in-house IT support and limited overhead budgets.

The teams presented 25 solutions via live demonstrations of prototype Apps and websites at the end of the Hackathon. Overall, the types of solutions that emerged were (in order of prevalence): chatbots (to provide interactive FAQs); matching platforms (to help facilitate consultation between lay users and specialist advisers); document assemblers (to guide users to complete court forms and other standard legal documents); and schedulers/calendars (to calculate and track procedural timelines) –and even a game (to make learning about employment laws easier). The winning team developed a combined document assembler and scheduler platform for users of the Small Claims Tribunal (SMT). The prototype appeared practical for adoption in SMT cases where parties have no legal representation and where there are a manageable number of court forms and procedures. 

The Hackathon solutions denoted underlying but unsurprising law and tech issues. There are basic challenges concerning the capture and retrieval of legally relevant information and unstructured data, and finding appropriate specialists and coordinating legal advice securely and efficiently. Moreover, digital solutions are good at addressing some of these challenges, for example, where a problem requires automating standard, repetitive and relatively straight-forward tasks. The level of participation in the Hackathon exceeded expectations, indicating strong community interest in the application of technology to serve access to justice and strengthen the rule of law. We are therefore encouraged by the results, and will be assisting teams that are ready, willing and able to further develop their solutions for actual implementation. The Hackathon proved to be a fun way to promote access to justice and to test ideas about innovating for the same. It was also an amicable forum for exploring policies and the potential drivers of innovation in the legal system.


The commentary in this article is the author's own for analytical and explanatory purposes, and do not represent the opinion of the Hackathon judges or the Law Society of Hong Kong.