Julia Salasky has always been driven to help make a justice system that works for everyone. But she didn’t anticipate quitting a dream job in the process.
After finally landing a role as a lawyer at the UN, Salasky felt unsettled. Prior to joining, she’d been doing pro-bono work in a legal aid centre, where she saw first-hand how hundreds of thousands of the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens, including domestic violence victims, were being denied justice due to legal aid cuts. And in her UN job, she had begun to feel she wasn’t helping some of those who needed help the most.
So, much to the surprise of her friends and family, Salasky quit and came up with a new plan of action – one that could make legal support accessible to anyone, regardless of their income or background.
Today, Salasky is the founder and CEO of CrowdJustice, a crowdfunding platform that helps people raise funds for legal issues, and connects lawyers with potential clients. Since its launch, it’s generated more than £10m from small donors, and helped with nearly 1,000 legal matters. Some of these include supporting a student facing deportation and a defence fund for those arrested during the Extinction Rebellion protests.
In 2009/10, more than 900,000 cases were supported by legal aid – this has fallen by 84% in seven years. But while Salasky’s main objective was to reduce the barrier of cost that keeps so many people from obtaining legal services, the platform goes beyond raising money. “It’s about increasing access to legal services,” she explains. “That certainly means getting access to a lawyer. But it also means having awareness that rights exist in the first place.”
The legal industry is slowly beginning to recognise the need to democratise who has access to its services. Chatbot tools in the legal sector are becoming increasingly popular in lawtech as an affordable way to identify legal issues. For example, DoNotPay, a free chatbot that offers AI-powered legal counsel, began as a tool to help people challenge parking tickets. It’s now expanding to help people battle landlord contract violations, asylum applications, and issues surrounding maternity leave. While some of its services are available in both the US and the UK, the company is focusing its efforts on the US market.
There are also a number of apps and initiatives being developed for other legal needs, serving as unconventional, alternative legal services. For example, a British app, LawOn, that aims to streamline the process of securing counsel by helping identify people’s legal issues and pair them up with relevant local lawyers.
Still, the availability of new, innovative legal options are limited – and often, they either remain in beta-stages (testing stages), or owned by private companies, making legal support for ordinary people much more limited.
The legal industry is becoming increasingly dependent on technology, such as modernised analytical tools being used to pore through documents, and automation systems converting physical documents into digital content. And while this is happening, people like Salasky are thinking about ways to ensure others are not left behind with the new tech growth and innovation. This is especially true when she considers the specific, additional barriers women face when it comes to legal justice access.
“Some of the barriers to women accessing justice are structural,” she explains. “It’s hard to speak out against, say, sexual discrimination in the workplace if the person who will suffer is not the person discriminating, but the victim.”
She adds that this is something she often sees in her work: the victims, often women, are not only hit with the burden of high financial costs when pursuing a legal matter, but also face wider, systemic issues or prejudices. For example, with family law matters, women are often the ones that lack the liquidity to pay for legal services at the breakdown of a marriage. “You can start to see how access is a very difficult problem to solve, when it touches on so many structural barriers in society.”
Salasky recognised that while she could help more people to pay for high-quality legal advice, her wider industry needed better support. And so she took her work with CrowdJustice a step further, building a way for law firms to have improved technology.
This year, under a parent brand Legl, she brought together legal experts, software engineers, and designers to develop new tools for law firms. This includes improved systems for online payments, compliance, raising awareness around legal issues, and helping consumers have a better experience of the law.
The Legl team say they want to use technology to “transform the industry” and make it work for the people who use it, by giving law firms the tools to reduce costs, generate more revenue and take on more clients.
While CrowdJustice is a new platform, Salasky and her team hope it will help pave the way for other legal companies to put tech at the forefront, so legal support can become universal. After all, she says, legal services are the only way for anyone to have real rights. “Without access,” she says, “rights are ephemeral.”