Online Courts Hackathon: Report and Reflections

July 2, 2017

‘We are all winners here’ was one of the phrases Richard
Susskind used in his closing remarks at the Online Courts Hackathon. And,
judging from the reaction of the many people I spoke to at the event, for once
the cliché was true. For so many to leave exhausted but happy marks this out as
a unique event – and nothing less than a triumph for those who organised it. Even
I, as a mere observer, was energised and uplifted by the wonderful atmosphere,
the plethora of great ideas and the stunning skills on display.

Professor Richard Susskind and Jimmy Vestbirk deserve
immense personal credit for pursuing the initiative and then seeing it through
on the day with immense charm and commitment. But the Society for Computers and
Law (especially Maddie Southorn), the entire Legal Geek team, the Judiciary of
England Wales (we had a Lord Chief Justice and High Court judges visiting on
Sunday – and an LCJ endorsement goes a long way in providing credibility) and
the HM Courts & Tribunals Service (with Susan Acland-Hood present on both
days) all deserve immense credit for crucial contributions. The University of
Law hosted the event at its Bunhill premises and scarcely put a foot wrong in aiding
such a complex that had so much potential to go wrong.

It was a privilege to attend the Online Courts Hackathon as
an observer. Since I was there for only a quarter of the event and had a bed to
sleep in elsewhere, it may be impertinent to attempt to give the flavour of the
event, but I will try.

The Event

The idea of the Online Courts Hackathon was to bring lawyers,
court users, law students, and technologists
together and invite teams
to design various tools to support online courts. Over 400 people applied to attend
but only 220 were accepted (an astonishingly high percentage turned up and
stayed for 24 hours). Most were part of a pre-set team but some attended as
individuals and they were allocated to a team created on the day. The aim was
for teams to have a balance between coders and lawyers. Teams came from many
leading law firms, from start-up legal technology companies and from many
different jurisdictions – Italy being particularly well represented. The team
from Gilbert & Tobin in Australia flew over specifically for the hackathon –
a fact that caused delighted astonishment and emphasised the profile and
importance of the event.

A series of challenges were set under various headings:

form-filling – making court documents more
accessible to litigants in person

order drafting – creating orders that are more
likely to be accepted by courts

continuous online hearing – challenging the
question of whether a court is a place or a service

argument-building – to aid non-lawyers in
creating well-structured arguments, distinguishing fact from law

outcome prediction – using technology to answer
the natural question “what are my chances of winning?” rather than
asking a lawyer

negotiating and settlement – tools to help
resolve disputes before they escalate

dispute classification – to guide non-lawyers to
resolution options

bundles – how to solve the plastic-bag-full-of-paper

But guidance on the challenges included encouragement to
construe them very broadly and ‘not to be constrained by the limitations in
imagination of those of us who put the challenges together’.

The Process

While it was clear that a handful of teams had come with a
pretty firm view of what the area that they would address, most started from
scratch. Some of the ideas that were floated didn’t make it past the first
coffee-break and some perished as the pizza boxes arrived. But within an
astonishingly short time, teams defined their challenge, were designing
decision trees and even commenced initial build. Simon Forrester from Zehuti,
who helped out SCL on the technical side and tweeted developments for almost
the entire 24 hours, observed ‘an
interesting array of technical platforms being employed, though nodejs is
emerging as one of the stars of the show
’. Kennedys tweeted that their
team was being ‘galvanised by ideas, technology and caffeine’ and it is fair to
say that there was plenty of galvanising going on. But what was slightly
surprising, in a competitive environment, was the generous assistance provided
across teams – as Simon Forrester put it, ‘wonderful sense of camaraderie –
people are discussing their projects, helping out other teams in their spare
time’ and that spirit lasted to the very end as teams supported closing presentations
from others.

The judging phase
involved teams being split into three groups and two judges short-listing their
top three from each group. The teams had just three minutes to communicate
their idea and progress in implementing it at that stage. The short-listed
groups got four minutes in front of the full panel of judges and every other
attendee. The judges were:

  • Mrs Justice May, High Court
  • Mrs Justice Carr, High Court
  • Amanda Finlay, Chair of Law
    for Life
  • Kevin Gallagher, Digital
    Change Director
  • Chris James, Technology
    Lawyer, SCL Trustee
  • James Moore, Co-founder, F-Lex Legal Ltd. 


Though all attendees were ‘winners’, some got trophies too.
A team made up from members of Wavelength Law and the Law Society of England
and Wales won. Team PM from Pinsent Masons were runners-up. There were also
awards for the Craziest Idea, which went to the Two of Us, Best Teamwork, won
by the Gilbert & Tobin team, and for ‘Coolest Tech’, which was awarded to a
team from Cambridge University.

The Wavelength/Law Soc suggestion was by far the most
ambitious, taking the challenge beyond anything that I suspect the organisers envisaged.
Their concept went from a diagnosis of a chest complaint in a doctor’s surgery
through each stage of a possible claim against a landlord, using slick ‘pathfinder’
technology and voice interaction with COLIN (the Courts OnLINe help agent). It
was imaginative and innovative and a deserved winner. The amount of progress
made on the concept in the 24 hours was astonishing, even though it is clearly
such an ambitious concept that 24 months might be needed to develop even a

TeamPM might consider themselves unlucky to have met such
stiff opposition. Their MobiMapper argument builder has real potential in ‘translating’
difficult legal concepts into ordinary language that a litigant in person might
understand – and, more important, ‘translating’ from ordinary language to

I have only one complaint about the judging: I didn’t think
that the proposal from the Two of Us –assisting settlement in contested post-divorce
financial disputes – was all that crazy. Clearly the judges were more cynical than me – not an easy trick to pull off.


It would be wonderful if some of the creative ideas which
first saw the light of day at the Hackathon could be adopted by HM Courts &
Tribunals Service and made adjuncts to the online courts system. I hope somebody
is trawling through the coverage and noted all those ideas. But I am convinced
that the greatest benefit of the Online Courts Hackathon will be about
awareness. More lawyers will be thinking about tech solutions to legal
problems, in an online courts context and way beyond it. More techies will be
seeing the law and the justice system in a new light and musing about solutions
that might transform. Some will have made contacts that endure and produce
solutions that may crystallise in months or even a few years.

The event was truly inspirational and I am reminded of
another inspirational event: the Free the Law meeting at Chatham House in 1999.
That meeting (I note that Richard Susskind and Amanda Finlay made crucial
contributions to that one too), led to the creation of BAILII and a wider
commitment to liberating legal information. Who knows where the Online Courts
Hackathon will lead? I hope it will lead to similar level of change and
genuinely think that it may be such a milestone that the number claiming ‘I was
there’ will far exceed the numbers the University of Law were able to take on
the day.

The biggest change I expect to see as a product of the
Online Courts Hackathon and the approach it embodied is a step-change in lawyer
mind-set. I spoke to two senior academics who attended the Hackathon and are
looking at a whole new way of training lawyers, with computers studies and association
with computer students embedded into the training. They are not alone. We may
see wave after wave of legal engineers in the coming decade for whom the
challenges set for the Online Courts Hackathon will be trivial hurdles taken in
their stride. I look forward to that future. 

Relive the Hackathon in tweets and pictures: