The Online Courts Hackathon was held over 24 hours on 1 and 2 July. Laurence Eastham reports on an exciting and uplifting experience.
‘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 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 problem.
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’.
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:
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 prototype.
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 lawyer-speak.
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: https://storify.com/computersandlaw/online-courts-hackathon-1-2-july-2017-london