Hackathon team tackles Australia’s access to justice problem with online platform
Melbourne-based ANIKA offers users free legal advice by connecting them with lawyers and law students
Each year, 160,000 Australians are turned away from community legal centres due to overcapacity — and it’s getting worse.
According to the spokesperson for Australia’s National Association of Community Legal Centres, Dan Stubs, “only 64.4% of people who were turned away could be given an appropriate, accessible and affordable referral. This means hundreds of thousands of people are missing out on the legal help they need and this number is growing.”
But a team of lawyers, designers, coders and entrepreneurs in Melbourne are tackling this problem by leveraging another: the majority of Australia’s 40,000 law students who are struggling to access practical legal training.
They decided to utilize this untapped potential by creating ANIKA, an idea they developed during the first round of the Global Legal Hackathon, locally hosted in Melbourne by Monash University. The platform offers users free legal advice by connecting them with lawyers and law students.
While developing their legal technology solution, they heard from several individuals who were not able to access the legal resources they required. “I called up every resource centre that I’d been referred to,” recalls one respondent, “but because I wasn’t physically able to make it into the centre, due to mental illness, physical illness, they weren’t able to help me.”
This is one of the many reasons the team developed the platform. According to ANIKA team member Dan Poole, “ANIKA was conceived as a respite from the cold corporate character the law can often embody, and as a tool to help address inequality by ensuring every person has access to justice, irrespective of their bank balance.”
On April 21, Team ANIKA will present their solution as Global Legal Hackathon finalists during the last round of the competition in New York. (You can support the team by joining them in New York — event details here.)
We spoke to Team ANIKA about how their platform works, some of the challenges they’ve overcome, and how they plan to expand on their access to justice solution. Here’s what they said.
How did Team ANIKA come to be?
Dan Poole: ANIKA was created by a group of lawyers, designers, coders, social entrepreneurs and other legal professionals. Outside of ANIKA, we’re also a group of friends that decided to try our hand at the first round of the GLH as a personal challenge and learning opportunity. Two months later and we’re about to head off to NYC! It’s been an epic journey. I don’t think any of us expected to get through the first round let alone make it all the way through to the finals — we can’t wait to see what else the journey has in store for us!
When doing research for your legal tech solution, you heard from individuals who could not get the legal services they so desperately needed. Was there a specific case or idea that inspired the team to build ANIKA?
Dan Poole: All of us have worked in Community Legal Centres or have contributed to the community in other ways, such as through social impact businesses or through traditional not-for-profits. For this reason, we are all acutely aware of the extreme privilege bestowed upon us at birth just by virtue of being lucky enough to be born into middle-class Australia. A quality education, a safe home, and access to the law if we need it were all guaranteed. Sadly, not everyone has the same luck — even within our own country are pockets of severe disadvantage. ANIKA was conceived as a respite from the cold corporate character the law can often embody, and as a tool to help address inequality by ensuring every person has access to justice, irrespective of their bank balance.
Noel Lim: For me, it was when we met a woman who’d had an appalling experience with the justice system. It was a chilling example of just how vulnerable many individuals are because of problems with A2J. When I got to know more about her experience, I realised how easily some barriers to justice can be broken down. Her case showed us how many people could be helped by a solution like ANIKA, and certainly motivated us to turn the idea into a reality.
How do you envision the relationship between the advice-givers (universities, law students, lawyers), people seeking legal services, and the platform?
Aron Mazur: We believe the most important part of designing a project like this is the experience of the users.
What we don’t want is for our users to feel like they are fulfilling their roles in a vacuum. After all, a crucial part of delivering legal services is maintaining a connection between the parties.
Firstly, we’d like the clients to feel like the students are accessible and available. Therefore, by integrating video chat messaging software, such as ‘Legaler’, our platform will allow law students and clients to communicate with each other throughout the process.
Secondly, we want the law students to feel supported by the lawyers. To accomplish this, students will receive guidance and personalised feedback from the lawyers.
What part will law schools play in accomplishing these objectives? Do you foresee them integrating ANIKA into their curricula?
Aron Mazur: Ultimately, we want universities to realise the value of providing their students with tech-focused practical training. We have been fortunate to receive a lot of positive feedback from Australia’s leading law schools. In fact, each university we’ve spoken to has told us that they’re interested.
We are most excited by our new partnership with Monash University law school, an institution with a history of providing their students with excellent clinical legal education. Another university said that “ANIKA is exactly the kind of thing we’re hoping to do more of”. This is proof that ANIKA is on to something very promising.
You’re leveraging law schools’ best resources in order to promote access to justice: their law students. But they’re still lawyers in training. How will your oversight or QA process ensure that the advice people receive is accurate and appropriate?
Aron Mazur: Quality control is our number one priority. While we will have many quality control measures in place, most importantly, every piece of legal advice will be reviewed and checked for accuracy by one of ANIKA’s experienced supervising lawyers. Therefore, the client will only ever receive high-quality legal advice.
Is there anything else out there like this? What sets you apart?
Tessa Ramanlal: We think our business model sets us apart. Universities will be paying for their students to receive top quality, tech-focused legal education, whilst simultaneously funding access to justice.
In terms of the educational unit itself, our tech sets us apart from other providers. We know that artificial intelligence is on the cusp of changing the game in this legal industry — and we want our students to be at the forefront of that change. Not only will students have the most relevant resources at their fingertips, but the will be supported by an ASK ANIKA chat bot, and a function which analyses the accuracy of the students’ drafts. We think this notion of being supported by machines in cutting edge ways is reflective of the direction of the legal industry, and has an important role to play in legal education.
On a slightly unrelated note, how did you land on the name ANIKA?
Tessa Ramanlal: We’re glad you asked! We love the meaning behind ANIKA.
ANIKA is another name for the Hindu Goddess Durga, a warrior for justice. The team was also inspired by the Buddhist concept of Anicca which holds that everything is in a constant state of change. And of course, we illuminate the A and I in the logo as a nod to ANIKA’s artificial intelligence.
How will you ensure people’s data and personal information is protected?
Aron Mazur: In the start-up phase, all data will be stored securely on an encrypted centralised database. We will integrate the highest-level security measures available on the market to ensure the data is protected.
Also, a further benefit of our project will be ANIKA’s permissioned blockchain database. Once the tech is available and market ready, we will implement ANIKA on a permissioned blockchain, such as Integra Ledger, so that sensitive information is hashed cryptographically to ensure confidentiality. Personal data will be stored on an encrypted centralised database, and only ANIKA’s lawyers and law students will have access.
What will be the biggest challenge going forward, and how do you plan to address it?
Noel Lim: Our biggest challenge is finding a way to provide legal advice that can be understood by anyone. It’s an age-old problem which is particularly difficult when it concerns the most vulnerable members of society.
We have and will continue to consult with those seeking legal advice and law firms to identify the needs of users. We’ve partnered with community legal centres and local councils to find ways to bridge the gap, and have been guided by industry experts with the aim of reenvisioning how legal advice is delivered.
Will you continue to work on the platform post hackathon?
Noel Lim: Definitely. We’ve validated a huge user base, secured our first customer, and we’ve already started securing funding for our prototype. We’ve partnered with education technology leaders and community legal centres to help us design a product that caters for our users.
We’re going to continue with ANIKA. We believe the world has needed it for far too long.
To watch Melbourne-based Team ANIKA and the rest of Global Legal Hackathon finalists compete in New York on April 21, attend the GLH Gala (access event info here). And to get the latest updates on ANIKA, follow them on Twitter (@ANIKALegal)!