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Courts & Justice

How justice tech is taking a human-centered approach to access to justice challenges

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

Natalie Runyon  Director / ESG content & Advisory Services / Thomson Reuters Institute

Justice tech — technology-enabled innovation that supports people as they navigate the US criminal and civil justice system — seeks to make a difference in access to justice for millions of citizens

In matters involving family, housing, and consumer litigation, as much as 60% of court cases today involve at least one self-represented party, according to the Self Represented Litigation Network. In addition, 77 million people in the US are currently living with a criminal record, according to a report from Village Capital. Practically speaking, this means that most of those involved with the civil and criminal court system cannot afford or choose not to use legal representation, creating a significant access to justice (A2J) challenge.

As the A2J issue has exploded, so too have the potential solutions, including technology-based ones. In fact, technology in this space, known as “justice tech,” offers one of the best opportunities to solve for major challenges in this area.

What is justice tech?

Justice tech refers to technology-enabled innovation that supports people affected by the US criminal and civil justice system and their families (and the organizations that serve them).

While many startups have existed in this space for quite some time, justice tech as an investment sector was only recently defined during a summit that was convened by Village Capital and the American Family Institute for Corporate and Social Impact (AmFam Institute) in 2020 to redefine the criminal and civil justice tech sector from an ethical, human-centered perspective.

The event brought together an advisory board comprised of grassroots activists, foundation leaders, startup founders, legal experts, and venture capitalists to ensure this new sector is incentivized to create, support, and fund “human-centered solutions” and is led by people with direct experience within the criminal and civil justice systems.

The business opportunity is enormous because it aims to disrupt an antiquated system via technology. This is critical in a global legal environment in which more than 5 million people cannot access the legal help they need, according to the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index 2021; and 23 million people per year must represent themselves in US civil proceedings.

Efforts to accelerate investment in early-stage founders

Both Village Capital and the AmFam Institute continue to collaborate to encourage investment in this space, while ensuring that positive social impact remains at the forefront as this nascent sector develops. As the newly minted startups gain momentum it’s imperative to ensure that the idea of justice tech is viewed as synonymous with positive social impact, rather than letting the moniker be co-opted by companies that inflict community harm under the guise of a hot new sector.

Indeed, this sector represents a unique paradox — entrepreneurs with the highest likelihood of developing successful and impactful solutions are also overwhelmingly those overlooked by investors. Thus, early-stage support of these founders is critical to scaling success.

Fortunately, the framework of this process is designed to support investors who are beginning to explore the space and ensure that they are mobilizing capital into ethical justice tech, highlighting areas around team, business model, product, and community engagement.

To expand this kind of investor engagement and to expedite progress of the sector, Village Capital, the AmFam Institute, and Dream.org are launching a fellowship program, Innovations in Justice Tech, this fall that will support justice tech startups from across the US. The goal of the program will be to connect existing investor networks to a pipeline of founders, while generating positive social and environmental outcomes the sector’s founders.

The program will support eight to ten for-profit justice tech innovations — thought to have the potential to improve the lives of individuals and communities impacted by the US justice system — through an application process.

Launch of the Justice Tech Association

One of the key tenets that is attracting actors to justice tech is the push that the best solutions are built by those with the lived experience with the problems that they are trying to solve, says Maya Markovich, Justice Tech consultant at Village Capital. “Justice tech founders are historically overlooked for funding,” Markovich adds.

To address this problem, Markovich and four other justice tech startup founders — Courtroom 5, HelloDivorce, Easy Expunctions, and People Clerk — created the nonprofit trade group, Justice Technology Association (JTA), in February 2022 with its own board of advisors.

The launch of JTA is another key step in defining justice tech as a component of the legal industry that can build awareness among innovators, technologists, and venture capitalists of the opportunity presented by justice tech startups and nonprofits to tackle complex challenges and disrupt antiquated legal systems.

Currently, the organization is focused on a few key pillars, including:

      • establishing, fostering, and providing access to a centralized justice tech ecosystem;
      • acting as a resource for those seeking to learn more about justice tech or exploring related funding opportunities;
      • presenting a collective voice to boost impact and advocate for regulatory reform; and
      • educating investors, consumers, and legal professionals about how technology can improve access to justice and administration of legal services to the millions of people who are unable to obtain equitable justice.

As justice tech sector continues to attract increased interest based on its growth so far in 2022, JTA membership also has grown from four in March to 30 member organizations today, with new applications coming in every week. “This space is exploding in a way that we saw in legal tech five years ago — but faster,” Markovich states.

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